“This Was My Baby”: The Family of Black Man Killed By Cops While Experiencing Mental Crisis Speaks Out
Two days after Virginia deputies were charged with second-degree murder for the killing of a Black man at a state mental hospital, the victim’s family made their first public appearance on Thursday, having viewed the footage of his death. On March 6, seven Henrico County officers allegedly smothered 28-year-old Irvo Otieno, who was handcuffed, shackled, and in the throes of a mental health crisis, while trying to admit him as a patient at Central State Hospital.
At a press conference on Thursday, Otieno’s family joined together to express their grief and demand justice for their loved one. “This was my baby. He cared for the people in his life,” said Otieno’s mother, Caroline Ouko, holding a smiling picture of her son. “What I saw today was heartbreaking. It was disturbing. It was traumatic. What I saw was torture. Those three days at Henrico County jail were a horror.”
Three days prior to his death, Henrico County police had detained Otieno under an emergency custody order after “interacting and observing” him while investigating a suspected burglary. In Virginia, authorities are allowed to place someone under an ECO if it’s believed that this person could hurt themselves or someone else as a result of mental illness. Despite his mother’s pleas to take him to a hospital closer to her home, officers took Otieno to Henrico Doctors’ Hospital.
After he was taken for an evaluation, he allegedly became “physically assaultive” with officers. He was then charged with assault on a law enforcement officer, disorderly conduct in a hospital, and vandalism, and taken to the Henrico County Jail West.
“It was at that [hospital] that he should’ve gotten help,” said the family’s attorney, Mark Krudys. According to Ouko, when she insisted on seeing her son at the hospital, the doctor threw his hands up in desperation and said, “It’s the police.”
“My son couldn’t advocate for himself,” said Ouko. “And I was denied the opportunity to advocate for him.” Otieno then spent three days inside Henrico County Jail West. Prosecutor Ann Baskervill said on Tuesday that video from the county jail shows three officers pepper-spraying and punching Otieno in his cell. Jail security footage also reportedly shows a naked Otieno, alone, in a small, bare cell with feces on the floor before being handcuffed and rushed by five officers. Virginia State Police have no immediate plans to release the footage, according to the Associated Press.
Around 4 p.m. on March 6, Otieno was transferred to Central State Hospital for unknown reasons. According to police, Otieno allegedly became assaultive with officers, but Otieno’s family says the video tells a different story. “He, in the videos, [is] never confrontational with them. He is not posing a threat to them. He’s not violent or aggressive with them. You see in the video he is restrained with handcuffs, he has leg irons on, and you see in the majority of the video that he seems to be in between lifelessness and unconsciousness. But yet you see him being restrained so brutally with a knee on his neck,” said civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is working with the family.
According to Krudys, the video at Central State Hospital shows Otieno seated on a chair at one point and then lying on his stomach on the ground, however it’s unclear whether or not he got there on his volition. For nearly 12 minutes, Krudys said all seven officers were on top of him, ultimately asphyxiating him. Virginia State Police weren’t notified about his death until three hours after the fact, according to Baskervill.
Before his death, Otieno was an aspiring musician with a love for hip-hop music and songwriting. Leon Ochieng, Otieno’s older brother, was planning a trip to Richmond, Virginia for his birthday and wanted to spend time with Otieno, who lived in the city since his family emigrated from Kenya when he was four. He expected his trip to the city to be a happy reunion, not a time of grief.
“At what point do we stop preserving life? At what point do we consider mental illness a crime? Can someone explain to me why my brother’s not here right now? Can someone explain to me why my mother can’t sleep, can’t eat? We’re broken,” said Ochieng.
The deputies, who were released on bond this morning, are currently on paid administrative leave and will appear before a grand jury on March 21. On Thursday, three Central State Hospital staff were also charged with second-degree murder related to Otieno’s death. Krudys and Crump are calling for the Department of Justice’s involvement in this case, as well as more mental health resources.
“As a Black parent, what do you when your child is going through a mental health issue? What do you do when not only their mental health status, but their skin color can be a death sentence,” said Crump.