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Another Death in Custody

Written by Bruce Cruser

Bruce Cruser has been Executive Director of Mental Health Virginia since 2016, bringing a background in social work and community corrections, and many years of leadership experience in local and state government.

March 22, 2023

Henrico resident Irvo Otieno died on March 6 while in the process of being admitted to Central State Hospital. The family, their attorneys and the prosecutor who reviewed the video all said deputies piled on the 28-year-old as he endured a mental health crisis, even though Otieno was handcuffed and shackled and posed no danger to anyone at the time. Now getting national attention, this tragedy raises many questions about authorities’ responsibility and training protocols for handling  mental health crises. 

The Dinwiddie County Prosecutor 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 at the jail and then pinned to the floor at the hospital. Apparently some of those charged were present but did nothing to intervene while Otieno was held down for 12 minutes and asphyxiated, smothered by the weight of officers allegedly lying on top of him and pressing 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 will be viewing video of a murder.

There is no excuse.

[ A version of this blog first appeared in the Virginia Mercury, March 22, 2023 https://www.virginiamercury.com ]

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