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‘Come Back When You’re Dangerous’: How Police Are Failing The Mentally Ill

Natasha McKenna (Courtesy of Natasha McKenna’s family)

This post was originally published at MintPressNews.com.

Natasha McKenna was killed in February by a Special Emergency Response Team officer at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center in Virginia. She had been shot four times with a taser while her hands were cuffed behind her back, her legs shackled, and a mask secured to her face to prevent her from spitting.

The Washington Post reported that her last words were, “You promised you wouldn’t hurt me!”

The Fairfax County Police Department released the findings of an investigation into the death of the 37-year-old woman on Monday. Video of the incident has not been released to the public.

The official cause of death, as reported in April by the FCPD, is: “Excited delirium associated with physical restraint including use of conductive energy device.” Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are also listed as contributing causes.

The official “manner” of death, however, is ruled an “accident” in the autopsy report.

In other words, the SERT officer accidentally killed McKenna, who is survived by a 7-year-old daughter.

This seems typical for the way that black and brown people are treated by law enforcement in the United States – unarmed persons are killed, and the offending officers walk away with, at the most, a slap on the wrist.

Matthew Fogg, a retired chief deputy for the U.S. Marshals Service, agrees.

“As a Marshal and having handled prisoners, thousands of prisoners, in my career, this seems like it was an unnecessary use of force,” Fogg, who has no professional connection to McKenna’s case, told MintPress News. “You’re talking about a female here, only 130 pounds, and you’ve got her restrained, and you’re tasing her!”

“Why so much force?”

McKenna’s situation was compounded by her mental health issues, according to Pete Earley, a former reporter for The Washington Post and author of “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness,” a book about his son’s experiences with mental illness and the failings of the criminal justice system.

“This is a woman who had a long history of mental illness. She got into an argument at a car rental place, the police showed up, [and] she became belligerent,” Earley told MintPress.

“They did what they thought would be a mercy arrest, took her to a hospital where apparently she did not get any decent care, and in the process she was charged with assault… and ended up with a felony [charge] just like my son,” Earley continued, explaining the sequence of events that led to McKenna’s jailing.

On Jan. 25, McKenna was arrested after calling police to report that she had been assaulted. While police were investigating her complaint, they discovered a warrant for McKenna’s arrest for assaulting an officer in neighboring Alexandria, Virginia.

The Alexandria incident is the “mercy arrest” Earley referred to, which occurred on Jan. 15. Five days later, on Jan. 20, a warrant was issued for her arrest.

While it is unclear what happened during the initial interaction with Alexandria police, it does seem like McKenna was experiencing some kind of episode associated with her mental illness because police took her to the hospital rather than jail, reported WUSA9, a CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C.

Earley believes the assault charge could have been baseless. “She was charged with assault, and that could be everything from not obeying a policeman’s orders to just walking away,” he explained.

Fogg backed up this analysis, telling MintPress that part of his training as a U.S. Marshal was that people should be charged with assault if a Marshal has to put his or her hands on them in any way.

“If you’ve got to put your hands on somebody – that’s the first thing you do: you charge them with assault so that they can’t come back and try to sue you,” Fogg explained.

‘That’s just outrageous’

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help.” Indeed, the organization continues, 2 million people with mental illnesses are booked into jails each year.

Further, Human Rights Watch released a report in May, which reports that it is common for staff in jails and prisons across the country to use unnecessary, excessive, and malicious force against prisoners with severe mental health issues, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The report, “Callous and Cruel,” states:

“Corrections officials at times needlessly and punitively deluge them with chemical sprays; shock them with electric stun devices; strap them to chairs and beds for days on end; break their jaws, noses, ribs; or leave them with lacerations, second degree burns, deep bruises, and damaged internal organs. The violence can traumatize already vulnerable men and women, aggravating their symptoms and making future mental health treatment more difficult. In some cases, including several documented in this report, the use of force has caused or contributed to prisoners’ deaths.”

Watch video of Maine Correctional Center officer’s restrain and pepper spray an inmate whose crime was trying to inflict self-harm.

The report explains that staff are often authorized to use force against inmates when an inmate’s behavior threatens the immediate security of officers and other inmates, and other efforts have been made to secure the compliance of an inmate.

However, HRW noted that many of the incidents in their investigation were non-threatening in nature, so the abuse meted out against inmates may constitute torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment, according to international human rights prohibitions.

Pete Earley argues that Natasha McKenna should have never been taken to jail: “When the officers came, they should’ve had what they call a Crisis Intervention Trained (CIT) police officer, who’s somebody’s who’s undergone 40 hours of training to understand the difference between mental illness and someone just being a trouble-maker.”

If law enforcement had more humane mechanisms in place for handling people with mental illness, McKenna would have been brought to what’s called a drop-off center, where she could have been evaluated by a mental health professional and an appropriate treatment program could have been recommended.

Earley told MintPress:

“This thing could’ve been avoided. It’s very startling that if you look at the picture of Natasha McKenna that we put up where she’s booked into jail. She’s not some wild-eyed person in the midst of psychosis. She’s smiling, and that’s a contrast to someone who gets held down and repeatedly tasered when they’re in a controlled environment, when they’ve already had leg irons attached, when already been hanged up.”

He added: “I mean, that’s just outrageous.”

Reverting back to colonial days

Echoing the National Alliance on Mental Illness report, Pete Earley told MintPress it’s more common for people with mental illnesses to encounter police than get treatment because of the backward nature of how today’s system treats people with severe mental health issues.

Indeed, the way in which the mentally ill are imprisoned and sometimes abused is similar to the situation in colonial America, when there was an official policy to imprison the mentally ill, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes laws, policies, and practices that give timely and effective treatment to the mentally ill.

California Prisons Anti-Psychotics

“As early as 1694, legislation was passed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony authorizing confinement in jail for any person ‘lunatic and so furiously mad as to render it dangerous to the peace or the safety of the good people for such lunatic person to go at large,’” according to a 2014 TAC survey of how mentally ill people are treated in jails and prisons across the U.S.

A growing movement of activists in the 1820s and 1830s influenced a new set of legislation to confine people in psychiatric wards instead of prisons because of the inhumane ways in which they were often treated.

“Thus, for approximately 100 years, the problem of mentally ill persons in prisons and jails appeared to have been solved. These individuals were treated as patients, not as criminals, and were sent to mental hospitals for treatment,” states the TAC report.

But, starting in the 1960s, de-institutionalization marked a massive shift in this policy. The severely mentally ill were transferred from state institutions, and those institutions were closed. This process has been called“one of the largest social experiments in American history” — and it’s one that has clearly failed individuals with mental illness.

The TAC report concludes:

“[I]t has been known for almost 200 years that confining mentally ill persons in prisons and jails is inhumane and fraught with problems. The fact that we have re-adopted this practice in the United States in recent years is incomprehensible. Prison and jail officials are being asked to assume responsibility for the nation’s most seriously mentally ill individuals, despite the fact that the officials did not sign up to do this job; are not trained to do it; face severe legal restrictions in their ability to provide treatment for such individuals; and yet are held responsible when things go wrong, as they inevitably do under such circumstances. This misguided public policy has no equal in the United States.”

‘It’s not illegal to be crazy’

Matthew Fogg, the retired U.S. Marshal, told MintPress that the present state of indifference toward black and brown people by law enforcement in the U.S. is systemic.

“When it comes to African-Americans and people of color,” Fogg said, “I’ve seen excessive force used in extraordinary ways that you just don’t see on people of non-color, white.”

The only options he sees for exposing and tackling this pervasive attitude include community action and the various movements springing up across the country. People are standing up to law enforcement and saying, “We’re no longer going to be treated this way. If you’re outside the bounds of the law, we want to expose you to be prosecuted,” he said.

This kind of public awareness is also what’s needed for the systemic issues with law enforcement’s handling of the mentally ill to be addressed. Earley told MintPress the current situation drives the families of the mentally ill to take desperate measures to secure treatment for their loved ones.

“A family knows that they have to wait until somebody becomes dangerous because that’s the threshold,” he said. “You have to be dangerous. It’s not illegal to be crazy.”

“So they’ll wait or they’ll agitate the person. The person will react by maybe pushing the father. They’ll call the police. The police will come. Then the person gets arrested, and then they’re told they can’t go home. And then they release them into jail. And so all you’ve done is made a situation worse.”

Earley’s son, Mike, has been hospitalized five times to date, and during one crisis Mike became violent. Earley called the police, and when they came, they shocked his son with a taser twice. “This is just an example of how difficult it is to get anyone decent care in this country,” he said.

To combat malicious treatment of the mentally ill, like Natasha McKenna and his own son, Early suggests improving community-based services for the mentally ill, widening access to the mental health care system, and changing the criteria that allows the mentally ill to seek help.

“What happened was we closed down all the state hospitals and promised to use that money to help people in communities, but that didn’t happen,” he said, referring to the process of deinstitutionalization, which was supposed include mechanisms to bolster community-based services but never did.

Earley says it’s extremely difficult to gain access to mental health care — and this has got to change. “I couldn’t get in it,” he said. “I couldn’t get my kid in it until he became violent.”

Finally, he explained that the criteria used to assess whether a person can be treated need to be changed.

“We also need to look at first-time breaks,” he urged. “Most people who have a mental illness are confused the first time [they realize they’re having a mental health crisis] and are willing to see a doctor, and that’s the best time to try and engage them.”

“We don’t do that. We say, ‘Come back when you’re in a crisis. Come back when you’re dangerous.’”

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Catherine Shakdam

Catherine Shakdam