Anybody afraid of law enforcement should stay out of Northern Virginia for the next few weeks. And anybody familiar with the police in Northern Virginia should be afraid.
Starting on Friday, Fairfax County will host the 2015 World Police and Fire Games, the cop Olympics. It’s a huge deal for the county. Organizers bill the soirée as “the second largest global multi-sport event,” with only the real Olympics being bigger. Tony Shobe, sports director for what’s being called Fairfax 2015, claims that about 25,000 visitors will arrive to take part or spectate alongside the locals.
When the games were awarded, Fairfax County supervisor Michael Frey gushed in a press release about all the wonders of the area. “This is an outstanding opportunity for Fairfax County to showcase our exceptional First Responders and the world-class destination that we are,” the release read.
The sort of exceptionalism displayed by Fairfax County law enforcement these days, however, isn’t something the locals really want the world to look at. Take Tony Shobe’s workplace, for example. When not promoting Fairfax 2015, he serves as commander of the Emergency Response Team of the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office—which is really the county jail’s in-house SWAT team. His unit is now being scrutinized for the killing of Natasha McKenna.
“You promised not to hurt me!”
McKenna, 37, suffered fatal injuries on Feb. 3 at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. Authorities in Fairfax County routinely clam up when its law enforcers kill unarmed citizens, which happens pretty often. (In fact, if stonewalling were an event at this year’s Games, the hometown cops would be the chalk.) But the information about McKenna’s killing that has leaked out in subsequent months sounds like the stories that came out of Abu Ghraib during the Iraq invasion.
In late January, McKenna was arrested after employees of a Hertz outpost in Alexandria, Va., called police to report that she was being disruptive while returning a rental car. She fled when the cops arrived and was later detained by Fairfax County police on assault charges filed by an officer from Alexandria, a neighboring jurisdiction, who alleged McKenna threw a punch during the Hertz incident. Because the charges weren’t from Fairfax, the county would not conduct psychological evaluations of its prisoner, who had a history of mental illness, and decided to transport her to Alexandria. Incident reports uncovered by Tom Jackman of the Washington Post detail how a crew of sheriff’s department staffers—including six members of Shobe’s Emergency Response Team wearing full hazmat suits over their standard armored outfits—entered the 5-foot-3, 130-pound McKenna’s cell. The deputies cuffed her arms behind her back, shackled her legs, applied a device known as a “Ripp Hobble” to connect the arm and leg restraints and thereby further restrict her movement, and put a hood over her head. They then electrocuted her repeatedly with a taser set on 50,000-volts, according to the Post.
Tasers are designed to temporarily paralyze targets by shutting down their muscular system with electric jolts, typically delivered through probes shot into the skin. But when the standard methods didn’t sufficiently incapacitate McKenna, Fairfax deputies removed the probes from their taser and just pressed the device directly to her thigh and continued zapping her. That technique, called a “drive stun,” is used strictly to inflict pain on a target, not cause muscular incapacitation; further, stun guns are not recommended for use on mentally ill targets. McKenna’s heart stopped while the deputies were restraining her, and she died when taken off life support machines a few days later. The deputies reported that as they were inflicting mortal damage upon her, McKenna was yelling, “You promised not to hurt me!”
Fairfax County authorities listed McKenna’s death as “accidental” after a coroner ruled that she died of “Excited Delirium during physical restraint, including the use of a conductive energy device.” What happened hardly seems accidental. But the county has essentially taken a “Deputies don’t kill prisoners, tasers kill prisoners” stance. The use of tasers in the jail has been suspended, but no charges have been filed against anybody involved in the killing.
The outrage over McKenna’s death has grown over the months, as the Post’s continued reporting and editorializing on the matter have been picked up by other media outlets. But legal authorities in Fairfax County have done nothing obvious to quell it. The Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office said shortly after McKenna’s death that the jailhouse incident was captured by security cameras, but those videos have not been made public. The names of the public servants who killed McKenna have not been released, either.
The behavior of the law enforcement community in the county, rather, has provided a study in stalling. Take the county’s inert handling of the taser used in McKenna’s killing. On April 21, about two and a half months after McKenna was killed, Fairfax County police posted a statement about how the weapon used to kill McKenna would be “inspected and analyzed to ensure it was working within designed specifications.” Subsequent updates—one on May 22, another on June 18—have reiterated that the weapon is being tested. Exactly why it’s taken nearly five months to perform these tests is unclear.
“I don’t want to die today!”
An awful truth about the glacial pace and complete lack of transparency in the investigation of McKenna’s killing is that this how it always goes in Fairfax County.
As the police Olympiad opens, in fact, the Fairfax County cops still have the killing of John Geer hanging over their heads. In August 2013, Geer was shot by an FCPD officer in broad daylight while standing in the doorway of his home, unarmed and with his hands up. The police had been called to investigate a domestic dispute between Geer and his longtime partner, and his killing occurred not long after Geer told the lawman who would end up killing him, “I don’t want to die today.” Friends, family and neighbors were among those who saw him killed. Several Fairfax County cops who were on the scene told superiors within the department that one of their own, Officer Adam Torres, had no good reason to fire the shot that killed Geer. Photographs taken by neighbors just before the killing show him with his arms up. But despite all the in-house testimony and civilian witnesses, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh declined to file charges against Torres. In fact, Torres remains on the FCPD payroll. The county refused to even tell Geer’s family who killed their kin for 16 months, and only released that information after the U.S. Department of Justice and Senator Charles Grassley got involved. Only because of that outside pressure, a grand jury was empaneled in early June to decide whether to indict Torres for the killing. But that grand jury won’t meet until the end of July; the hold-up makes no sense, unless Morrogh didn’t want the proceedings going on while the cop Olympics crowd was in town.
If Torres is indicted, it will be the first time in the history of the Fairfax County Police Department that an officer has been charged for an improper shoot. In recent years, FCPD officers have been cleared in the shooting death of Sal Culosi, an unarmed optometrist who’d been accused of accepting football bets from an undercover officer, and in the killing of David Masters, who was unarmed and sitting in the driver’s seat of his car. stopped at a stoplight when a cop shot him in the back. In explaining why he wasn’t prosecuting Masters’ killer, Morrogh initially told the public that the victim was not shot in the back by the police officer, despite eyewitnesses, an autopsy, and photographic evidence to the contrary. Those mulling whether to travel to Fairfax County during the cop Olympics should note that the place has a history of allowing police officers from other jurisdictions to get away with murder, too. In 2000, undercover officer Carlton B. Jones was sitting in an unmarked car when he shot unarmed Howard University student Prince Jones (no relation) five times in the back in the Falls Church section of Fairfax County in what the officer said was a case of mistaken identity. Former Fairfax County prosecutor Robert Horan declined to indict Carlton B. Jones or even bring the case to a grand jury.
“This is a very sad day in Fairfax County, when the commonwealth’s attorney legitimizes murder,” Ted Williams, an attorney for Prince Jones’ family, told the Washington Post at the time.
Fairfax’s reputation has led Geer’s loved ones to temper their expectations that they will get justice.
“I think we’re passed the stalling phase, and now we’re at the roadblock phase,” says Jeff Stewart, a close friend of Geer’s and witness to his killing. “I’m trying to keep an open mind about this. But no officer has ever been charged in the history of the department. How long do you go before that record becomes questionable? How long before that’s considered too good to be true? I know this: If this Fairfax County officer doesn’t get indicted, no officer ever will get indicted.”
FCPD’s investigation was moving so slowly, in fact, that Geer’s family settled its civil suit with the county without even waiting for the criminal proceedings to play out. The county will pay his estate $2.95 million.
“I have never seen anything like it in my 22 years in insurance,” says Chris Carey. He’s the administrator of the Virginia Association of Counties Group Self-Insurance Risk Pool (VACoRP), the insurance underwriter that holds the liability policy for the Fairfax County Police Department and its employees.
Carey says standard operating procedure for VACoRP in cases involving alleged police malfeasance is for all parties to wait until the criminal investigations and prosecutions run their course. “The criminal stuff [in the Geer case] took so long to adjudicate that we decided, along with the plaintiffs, to just get out of it.”
The settlement in the Geer suit is being called the largest amount ever paid by a county government in Virginia in a wrongful death suit. Fairfax County is responsible for the first $1 million. The rest will come from VACoRP’s coffers.
The policy with Fairfax County has an exclusion against covering “personal injury or property damage brought about or contributed to by the fraudulent, dishonest or criminal behavior of any covered person.” That means that if Ofcr. Torres were convicted of a crime related to the killing of Geer, VACoRP would not have had to pay out a dime. Yet VACoRP agreed to pay out its share of the settlement—$1.95 million—rather than wait to see if that happened.
“I’m kind of thinking: Do I think there’s a chance he gets indicted? Do I think there’s a chance he gets convicted?” Carey says. “And, geez, I don’t think so.”
Anybody brave enough to visit Fairfax for the Games might be attracted to the featured entertainment offering from organizers: A tour of the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. Space is limited.
Natasha McKenna is not related to the writer of this story. Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Illustration by Jim Cooke