FAIRFAX, Va. (CN) – Dozens protested Monday outside the jail where a black woman died after a struggle with sheriff’s deputies that involved four shocks by a stun gun.
“We’re here to amplify Natasha McKenna’s story, and to remember her – that a year ago today she was murdered,” Black Lives Matter activist Erika Totten said. “She called for help, and she was criminalized because she had a mental illness, because she was black – she was a woman.”
McKenna, who suffered from several forms of mental illness and other health conditions, died five days after sheriff’s deputies removed her from her cell at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center while trying to transfer the 37-year-old to another facility in Alexandria.
Rachel Anspach with African American Policy Forum called a video of the incident that led to McKenna’s death “one of the most horrific things” she’s ever seen.
Throughout the 48-minute video, a naked McKenna can be heard grunting and crying out as deputies in gas masks and hazmat suits try to restrain her. In the process, they delivered four stun gun shocks within two minutes to subdue her. McKenna stopped breathing shortly thereafter.
“What she was in need of was compassionate support,” Anspach said, noting that McKenna was “defenseless” and “in a state of crisis.”
A Fairfax County medical examiner ruled McKenna’s death an accident, asserting that she died from excited delirium syndrome, a controversial and rare condition associated with dozens of deaths in struggles with law-enforcement officers.
Though the National Association of Medical Examiners and the American College of Emergency Physicians both recognize the condition, critics say the syndrome can be used to cover up police wrongdoing.
The American Medical Association has not recognized the syndrome yet, a point emphasized by those gathered outside the detention center Monday.
When Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morogh cleared the deputies of wrongdoing in September 2015, his report quoted a deputy identified only as Shifflett likening McKenna’s state to “demonic possession.”
The demonstrators outside the detention center said they found the comparisons to demonic possession troubling.
McKenna was a woman suffering from mental illness who needed help, not shocks with a stun gun, they said.
Morogh’s report meanwhile suggests that McKenna’s outburst presented unique challenges.
“We struggled with her for a long, long time,” the report quotes one deputy identified as Krstlovic as having said. “I don’t think I’ve ever struggled with anyone for that long before…and I’ve been doing this for a long, long time and that was one of the hardest cell extractions I’ve come across.”
Morogh said the deputies followed protocols on Taser use.
“There is no evidence that any of the deputies acted maliciously, sadistically or with the intent to punish or cause harm to Ms. McKenna at any point in the struggle,” the report says.
“It was metabolically unstable and protracted resistance to any restraint due to her mental illness and the ensuing excited delirium syndrome that actually caused her death.”
The report also documents past police encounters with McKenna, with deputies describing her as “exceptionally strong, irrationally combative and seemingly indefatigable.”
Outside the detention center, the demonstrators implored attendees to remember McKenna.
“Say her name,” rotating demonstrators said through a bullhorn. “Natasha McKenna,” they somberly responded.
“A black woman was Tasered and died from the process,” Black Lives Matter activist Tracye Redd said. “There’s grown men who killed a black woman, and they’re not being held accountable. They’re still at their jobs, they’re still collecting paychecks.”
The demonstrators said it is important to raise awareness of McKenna’s death.
“Across the board we’ve seen that cases of police brutality against black women have failed to elicit the same levels of response that we’ve seen to cases of police killings of black men,” Anspach said.
Donning a black stocking cap marked with the words “say her name,” Anspach said the slogan is part of the African American Policy Forum’s campaign to draw attention to police violence against black women.
Totten said the media failed to adequately cover McKenna’s case “because she is black and she’s a woman.
“Our lives don’t matter,” Totten said. “And so our deaths are largely pushed to the side, especially when it’s state-sanctioned violence.”
McKenna’s confrontation is a “very gruesome story, and folks need to know,” she added.
The demonstrators charged the Sheriff’s Office with failing to implement any policy changes following McKenna’s death.
Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office public information officer Andrea Ceisler said in an email that the department suspended Taser use to review the department’s use of force.
Other changes have been made to help deputies address inmates with mental illness, she said. That includes “telepsychiatry,” more crisis intervention training, and the launching of a program that will divert “low risk offenders experiencing a mental health crisis to treatment rather than bringing them to jail.”
The demonstrators circulated a petition to Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid calling for the six deputies involved in restraining and shocking McKenna with a stun gun to be immediately fired.
They circulated another Amnesty International petition asking for Attorney General Loretta Lynch to investigate McKenna’s death and prohibit stun guns.
“We are calling to an end to the use of Tasers,” said Cayce Utley with SURJ, a group that organizes white people for racial justice.
“Fairfax County did you hear us?” We want you to say her name,” Utley shouted through the bullhorn.
“Natasha McKenna,” the demonstrators responded.
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