Remembering Natasha McKenna: A Promise Unfulfilled

Do you know the name Natasha McKenna?

You may have heard her name and her story, and been outraged. You may have heard it once or twice last year amid the alarming list of other names of those who died at the hands of law enforcement. You may have forgotten. You may not have known it at all.

But you need to hear it again, because one year after the tragic death of this young black woman - a 37-year-old mother - nothing has been done to ensure that this does not happen again.

You might recall that Natasha McKenna, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, initially called 911 to report an assault. While she was being examined in a hospital, she was taken to Fairfax County Jail for assaulting an officer some weeks before. While in mental health crisis and naked, she was forced out of her cell in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center in order to be transferred to nearby Alexandria. She was tasered four times while being restrained by corrections officers and then shackled to a chair.

Unable to withstand the 50,000 volts applied repeatedly to her defenseless body, Natasha died of cardiac arrest a few days later.

Later that year, the state attorney general attempted to use Natasha McKenna's mental health against her. He claimed that she was combative and displayed "superhuman strength." The medical examiner listed her cause of death as "excited delirium." No criminal charges were filed against the six -SIX - deputies that restrained her. Not even when a chilling video showing that she presented no threat to the officers was made public.

Tasers, widely thought to be the kinder alternative to deadly force, are tragically misunderstood even by the people who use them. Amnesty International found that from 2001 through 2015, at least 670 people have died after being struck by Tasers. A 2008 report found that 90 percent of the victims that died due to weapons such as Tasers were, like Natasha, unarmed. The American Heart Association has also presented scientific evidence concluding that Tasers can, in fact, cause cardiac arrest and death.

Among those who have died following the use of a Taser, people with a history of mental illness or who are in an agitated state due to drug use have a higher risk of negative consequences, which can be compounded by the person being restrained by physical force when shocked. The use of prolonged or multiple shocks can further increase the risk of harm. The use of 50,000 volts of electro-shock against people who are restrained and pose no serious threat is an excessive use of force, in some cases amounting to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

International standards call for the use of lethal force only as a means of last resort and only when officers are faced with an imminent threat of death or serious injury to themselves or others. When properly understood, Tasers can and must be considered as potentially lethal, and Amnesty International is calling for national guidelines that restrict their use to only those instances when officers are similarly threatened. In Natasha McKenna's case, Amnesty International found that Virginia is one of nine states that have no laws pertaining to the use of lethal force by law enforcement, while all 50 states and Washington DC fail to comply with international law and standards.

While it is not exactly clear how many people die every year at the hands of the police since such official records do not exist, estimates range from 400 to over 1000. What data is available suggests that African Americans are disproportionately affected.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch must finish an independent and prompt investigation into the death of Natasha McKenna, as well as institute nationwide changes to policing. Currently, no national guidelines for the use of Tasers exist, and policies on their use can vary among law enforcement agencies. These policies must comply with international standards under the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Establishing a National Crime and Justice Task Force to examine and produce recommendations on policing issues, including interactions with individuals with mental illness at the time of arrest and their treatment in custody, would give these reforms extra weight.

Natasha McKenna called the police in February to report an assault and then died at their hands. Her last words before she was restrained were, "you promised me you wouldn't kill me." That promise was broken. Natasha McKenna's family, her 7-year-old daughter, and many victims like her, deserve better.