Another death in custody
Irvo Otieno, seen here in an undated photo, died March 6, 2023 at Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie, Va. after experiencing a mental health crisis. Three hospital staff and seven Henrico Co. sheriff’s deputies have been indicted for second-degree murder in the asphyxiation death of 28-year-old Otieno. (Ben Crump Law)
By Bruce N. Cruser
Henrico resident Irvo Otieno died on March 6 while in the process of being admitted to Central State Hospital. Otieno’s family, their attorneys and the prosecutor who reviewed the video of his death all said deputies assaulted the 28-year-old as he endured a mental health crisis, even though Otieno was handcuffed, shackled and posed no danger to anyone at the time. This tragedy, now the focus of national attention, raises many questions about authorities’ responsibility and training protocols for handling mental health crises.
Dinwiddie County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Baskervill quickly filed second-degree murder charges against seven Henrico County sheriff’s deputies and three hospital security staff members. Videos reportedly show Otieno being assaulted, first at the jail and then again at the hospital. Apparently some of those charged were present but did nothing to intervene while Otieno was held down for 11 minutes and asphyxiated, smothered by the weight of officers allegedly lying on top of him and pressing their knees into his body.
Why did this happen? Haven’t we learned anything since the killing of George Floyd?
We can anticipate possible explanations: Otieno was combative while in crisis. Adrenaline kicks in when one perceives a threat and physical reactions can get out of control. Bystanders, even deputies and security officers, can be reluctant to intervene when force is used by those in authority. There may be poor training protocols, dysfunctional agency culture and personal misperceptions about mental patients and large Black men.
All of these factors are supposed to be addressed in officer selection and training. Training success should be monitored and enforced by leadership. Ironically, the Richmond Times Dispatch reports that a state agency just released new proposed standards for law enforcement training, including use of force and duty to intervene when other officers are engaged in unlawful or unethical behavior.
There is no excuse. These are not new training and enforcement challenges. Use of force issues, crisis behavior and deaths in custody have been public concerns for many years.
Training of law enforcement officers is only part of the problem. Those charged in Otieno’s death are deputy sheriffs and hospital security personnel. How are they selected for employment? How much training do they receive on the dynamics of severe mental illness and on the proper way to restrain a person in a mental health crisis? How is training success evaluated and then monitored on the job? Who present at the scene is expected to provide the leadership to stop abuse? Is there a behavioral health expert present?
Many good people work in public safety and security positions who want to protect vulnerable individuals, not harm them. In most cases their role should be to support or back up mental health providers when a person is in crisis. But when deputies or security officers have custody, the failure to properly select, train, supervise and support these employees to humanely handle mental health crises sets them up for failure, with lethal consequences.
A death in custody event spreads mental trauma well beyond those present at the time, from family members of the deceased to family members of the arrested and to the public, who often witness these murders via video.
There is no excuse.
Bruce N. Cruser, MSW is the executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia, the oldest mental health advocacy group in the state, based in Richmond.
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