Commentary: Law Enforcement, the Mentally Ill and the Pursuit of Justice

Commentary: Law Enforcement, the Mentally Ill and the Pursuit of Justice

Across the nation, people are having serious discussions about how to alter the dynamic that too often exists between some law enforcement officers and individuals. Out of each case, we learn something that will help us go forward. So, as justice pursues its course in Fairfax County with regard to the tragic death of Natasha McKenna, let’s not lose sight of the real underlying problem: the systemic mishandling of mentally ill patients who have few or no resources, and law enforcement’s struggle to deal with untreated or undertreated individuals.

There is a teachable moment here for those of us who have dedicated our lives to law enforcement and for members of the community who believe in dignity and fairness for those who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

All of us are eager — and many are impatient — for the investigation into Ms. McKenna’s death to be concluded. This incident has not been forgotten or ignored. From the beginning, the Sheriff’s Office has cooperated with the investigation fully. The recent completion of a report by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner means the investigation is nearing a close. I have not offered more than passing comment because, as both a law enforcement official and a citizen, I do not want to prejudice the outcome of an investigation in advance of the facts by answering questions to which I do not have the answers, or by anticipating actions I might take once all the facts are known. I admit to having been disappointed that someone chose to release internal documents — for the same reasons I think anyone interested in justice and fairness would be.

In the meantime, and for the foreseeable future, our jail will continue to be a warehouse for individuals with mental illness who have been unable or unwilling to access effective clinical care, social services and housing in the community.

About 40 percent of the inmates in our jail have been identified as needing some level of mental health care during their incarceration. More than a quarter have a serious mental illness — often combined with a substance abuse disorder — that requires intervention, regular treatment and medication management. The Sheriff’s Office is working to improve mental health care at the jail, but as of this writing, we have no available options to properly divert individuals under arrest and avoid unnecessary incarceration. In no way whatsoever is this intended to justify inappropriate, improper or illegal behavior by law enforcement officers anywhere; it is simply a fact.

As I have done for years, I will continue to advocate locally and in Virginia for more treatment centers for minor offenders who are seriously mentally ill and would be better served in a mental health facility than in a jail.

I have pledged my 28-year career with the Sheriff’s Office in service to the safety, security and well being of all Fairfax County residents, and to do so as fairly and transparently as possible. I will continue to work with mental health organizations in search of solutions to an intractable problem facing vulnerable individuals for whom all of us, out of nothing more than common human compassion, must assume some responsibility.