Sheriff releases video of struggle with inmate who died

FOX 5's Tisha Lewis reports on the newly-released video, which is graphic and disturbing.

- A video released Thursday shows a prolonged struggle between a naked, mentally ill inmate and five deputies in biohazard suits who shocked her four times with a stun gun before she lost consciousness.

The inmate, 37-year-old Natasha McKenna, died several days after the struggle, prompting a months-long criminal investigation. Thursday's release of the 45-minute video by Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid comes two days after the county's lead prosecutor announced he would not file charges, calling the death a "tragic accident."

A medical examiner also ruled the death accidental, specifically by excited delirium associated with use of restraints and a stun gun. McKenna's schizophrenia was listed as a contributing factor. The case remains the subject of a federal civil rights investigation.

The video, released on YouTube, begins with a deputy explaining that a special Emergency Response Team is being used to take McKenna, who is African-American, out of her cell at a jail in Fairfax and transfer her to the jail in Alexandria, where she had been charged with assaulting a police officer. The deputy says the team is needed because McKenna had previously attacked one of her jailers and because she had created a biohazard situation by throwing urine at guards.

A report released Tuesday by Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Morrogh indicated that deputies were also concerned because medical tests showed McKenna had multiple communicable diseases, including herpes and MRSA.

At the start of the encounter, a deputy says, "Natasha, we're here to take you out," and McKenna exclaims, "You promised me you wouldn't kill me!" Deputies quickly wrestle her to the ground. They struggle for 15 to 20 minutes to get her cuffed and bound in a restraint chair, and warned her that she will be shot with a stun gun if she keeps resisting. It is unclear why she is naked.

The video shows the Taser being used four times toward the end of the struggle. Eventually, the deputies get McKenna restrained in the chair and put a lightweight hood called a "spit sock" on her to prevent her from spitting at them.

A nurse then attempts to take McKenna's vital signs, though it is unclear whether the nurse gets an accurate reading at first.

A few minutes later, after she is taken to a garage area for transfer, another attempt to take her vital signs goes badly, and deputies begin resuscitation efforts.

McKenna lost consciousness, and on Feb. 7 -- four days after the incident -- was declared brain dead.

Kincaid expressed her condolences to the McKenna family Thursday, and says she will launch an internal investigation now that the criminal probe is concluded.

She said she released the video because there is "no better way for me to share what actually occurred" with the community.

McKenna's death was one of two incidents in the county that prompted questions about excessive force by authorities. In 2013, a Fairfax County police officer shot a man, John Geer, while his hands were above his head during a standoff with police. The officer was charged with murder last month after a two-year investigation that prompted accusations of stonewalling.

Pete Earley, a mental health advocate who serves on a county commission evaluating police conduct, said he watched the McKenna video and questioned the need to use a Taser on McKenna. He said it was clear that deputies had McKenna under control during the encounter, even if they were struggling to put her in restraints.    

He said the video runs counter to the portrayal in Morrogh's report that McKenna displayed almost superhuman strength in her battles with deputies.

Despite his concerns, Earley said he was pleasantly surprised by the professional demeanor of deputies, who generally spoke calmly and politely to McKenna during the encounter, and he said he credits Kincaid for taking steps to address the broader problem of mentally ill people being kept in jails when they would be better served in a treatment facility.

Morrogh's report states that a day before the altercation with Alexandria police that led to her arrest, doctors had sought to have McKenna hospitalized, but were advised by police and two separate magistrates that she did not meet the conditions for hospitalizing a person against her will.

Harvey Volzer, Natasha McKenna’s attorney, released the following statement:

I hope every citizen of Fairfax County and the Eastern District of Virginia watches the video to see how mentally impaired prisoners are treated.  The Sheriff’s Office never mentioned that Ms. McKenna not only was completely restrained BEFORE she was tasered four times, but also she was a naked black woman assaulted by eight armed men.  They also have to ask themselves what constitutes criminal behavior to their Commonwealth’s Attorney, Ray Morrough?   And, didn’t he think that a completely restrained woman might be afraid for her life under the circumstances shown in the video?  Hopefully the Civil Rights Division at Justice will have the guts to do what no law enforcement official in Fairfax is willing to do—protect the constitutional rights of citizens, particularly the mentally impaired.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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