Fairfax leaders learn ways to better handle mentally distressed offenders

WASHINGTON — Fairfax County leaders are looking to improve the way the county’s law enforcement interacts with mentally ill offenders.

It comes after Natasha McKenna was killed earlier this year when she was tazed in a Fairfax County jail.  McKenna was a schizophrenic who, officials say, needed help, but did not get it in the county’s jail.

“Natasha McKenna should have been in a mental health facility,” Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid told NBC Washington’s Julie Carey.  “It’s a tragedy. We need to do better to ensure that this never happens again.”

To ensure it never happens again, a delegation of Fairfax County leaders, including Kincaid, took a trip down to San Antonio and Bexar County, Texas.  Bexar County has become a leader when it comes to managing the mentally ill.

Officials there told NBC Washington that rather than engaging someone with a possible mental illness with a gun or Taser, deputies focus on the way they speak to disengage the offender and control the situation with the words they use.

Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau said offenders with a mental illness need to be identified and treated before they go into the jail system.

“That’s when we need to take care of the mental health issue, not wait until they have been in and out of our jail five or more times,” Pamerleau says.

Deputies ask offenders a series of questions that help them identify if they may suffer from a mental illness.  If they do, instead of going to jail, the suspect goes into a restoration center as an alternative treatment center to be treated for their illness.

If an offender is intoxicated, there is a sobering unit where there are medical services and a long-term detox program for long-term drug abusers. Those in the midst of a mental health crisis will get treated.

Samuel Lott is one of many who have benefitted from this adjusted approach.  Lott lost his job with IBM, became homeless and struggled with mental illness. After being arrested several times, he told NBC Washington that he ended up in the restoration center where he met with a licensed professional counselors and a psychologist.  He was treated for bipolar disorder and alcoholism.

“Getting help is what we need,” Lott explains. “Getting locked up does not get us the help.”

And on the grand scale, there have been even bigger benefits.  Homelessness in the San Antonio area is down 85 percent since this program began 13 years ago.  Use of force is down from about 50 times a year to roughly once every other year.  Bexar County officials also say they have saved $10 million a year since it’s cheaper to offer treatment than to incarcerate suspects.

But there is only one goal for Kincaid.

“This is about human capital,” Kincaid told NBC Washington. “It’s about people’s lives.”

Fairfax County has been taking a closer look at its entire policing policies, particularly after John Geer was shot and killed while standing in his front doorway at his Springfield town house.

The county brought in the Police Executive Research Forum to look at its policing policies after Geer’s death in 2013.  In the list of more than 70 recommendations given to the county last month, the group suggests the department:

  • Evaluate the way it handles emotionally disturbed people;
  • Implement use of force training that uses scenario-based role-playing situations;
  • End the use of the PIT maneuver in police chases; and
  • Focus training on the issues and values of policing in a democratic society instead of weapons changes.

No word yet if this trip to Texas will yield any new specific recommendations or changes to Fairfax County law enforcement.

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