Surveillance video released by a prosecutor Tuesday shows Irvo Otieno being pinned to the floor by multiple security officers at a Virginia state mental health facility in the moments leading up to his death earlier this month.
Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill’s office also released 911 calls about the incident in which a caller described Otieno as “very aggressive” and repeatedly asked for an ambulance, saying he was not breathing.
After watching that video, Prosecutor Baskervill charged seven Henrico sheriff’s deputies and three hospital security guards with second-degree murder. Those charges have made the tragedy into a national news story.
Hours after Otieno died, I received a telephone call from someone familiar with the officers who were involved urging me to reserve judgment about what had happened. The caller insisted Otieno’s death was an accident. One of the accused was a Henrico Crisis Intervention Team trainer. I was told that a lack of an available hospital bed exacerbated the situation by delaying transport. Otieno’s mental condition reportedly deteriorated during that delay.
It will be up to the justice system to decide if this was an accident or those involved committed murder.
What I do know is that these sorts of tragedies often can be prevented if a community has meaningful mental health care services in place. Which is why I am happy that today, NAMI Virginia issued a statement about the need to improve our state’s system, something Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has promised to do.
Long-time advocate Kathy Harkey, who lost her son to suicide, released the statement. She can be reached at email@example.com
From: The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia (NAMI Virginia)
Subject: The tragic death of Irvo Otieno stresses the need for reform in Virginia’s mental health and criminal justice systems
NAMI Virginia is deeply saddened by the senseless and horrific death of Irvo Otieno. Mr. Otieno was in mental health crisis, taken to Central State Hospital, and held down according to Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney, Ann Cabell Baskervill. Being held down caused Mr. Otieno to die of asphyxiation by smothering. Seven Henrico County sheriff’s deputies and three hospital security guards have been charged with second-degree murder in the death of Mr. Otieno.
26 year old Irvo Otieno
Virginia’s mental health system has been in need of revamping for years! Virginia’s criminal justice system is not equipped to respond to mental health medical emergencies. Mental illness is a medical issue, not a criminal issue. Consideration and care of the patient must always come first. NAMI Virginia is deeply saddened that far too often in Virginia, individuals with a mental illness, a treatable medical condition, are criminalized and treated inhumanely as opposed to being provided with medical care. Mr. Otieno was experiencing a mental health crisis. He required medical intervention but instead was met with force.
NAMI Virginia continues to advocate for a revamping of Virginia’s mental health system, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, jail diversion programs, the use of kind, non-combative de-escalation training, increased education, and the need to have knowledgeable, empathetic mental health professionals in the leading role in crisis situations to mitigate violent outcomes for those experiencing symptoms of a mental illness.
The purpose of CIT is to change the nature and perception of crisis calls to allow for effective field intervention. But, as we have seen through the senseless deaths of Irvo Otieno, Marcus David Peters, George Floyd, and too many others, more needs to be done. Police officers and emergency responders must be mandated to respond to mental health crises as medical emergencies – not criminal ones. Virginias mental health and criminal justice systems urgently need reforms that include funding, services to meet people where they are in stages of illness, education, accountability, and personnel trained to protect the patient and put the patient’s needs first.
One in five Virginians experiences a mental illness each year. The population of Virginia in 2021 was 8,642,000 people. That means that 1,728,400 million of our friends, family, neighbors, and our other fellow Virginians, are affected by mental illness each year. System transformation is long overdue in Virginia. System transformation is urgently needed before we lose more good people with treatable medical conditions to a cruel, senseless death!
The loss of Irvo Otieno is never far from the minds of the mental health community. NAMI Virginia continues to be on the frontline in the fight for system transformation of Virginia’s behavioral health system.