- Ivor Otieno was allegedly unjustly killed by Henrico police while struggling with a mental health crisis
- Otieno’s family reacted to a video showing Ivor Otieno being tortured by the police
- 10 people have been charged with his murder, including the police officers and hospital workers who treated him.
- There has been a history of US police brutality against the mentally ill.
The alleged murder of Kenyan-born Ivor Otieno by local American police has caused a stir in the African diaspora and Black communities in the US.
28-year-old Otieno was apprehended on March 3 on suspicion of burglary in south-eastern Virginia state, where he resided.
After the police interacted with and observed him, they placed him under an emergency custody order, which Virginia law stipulates is permissible when an individual has a mental illness and is likely to hurt themselves or others around them.
He was then taken to the Henrico Doctors’ hospital for an evaluation. According to Henrico police, Otieno was “physically assaultive” during the intake process and thus had to be restrained.
Thereafter, he was arrested on three counts of assault on a law enforcement officer, disorderly conduct in a hospital and vandalism, and was taken to the Henrico Jail.
His mother, Caroline Ouko, was reportedly present at the hospital and frantically urged the police to be gentle with him as she believed he was having a mental health crisis. However, her plea fell on deaf ears as they still took him away from her. She never saw her son alive after that day.
Ann Baskervill, an attorney of the Commonwealth of Virginia, said Otieno died of asphyxiation while in custody.
On March 6, Henrico County Sheriff’s deputies arrived at Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County just before 4 PM EDT to admit Otieno as a patient. By 7:30 PM, Virginia State police had already been called to investigate his death.
On Thursday, March 16, Otieno’s family, as well as their attorneys Ben Crump and Mark Krudys, held a press conference where they condemned the video showing Otieno’s final moments before he was allegedly murdered while in custody.
The video, which was made on March 6, was first released to the family by Baskervill, so they could be prepared before the public release.
Till now, the video is yet to be released to the public.
The family’s attorneys first painted the picture of the content of the video for the press.
“This was a mental health crisis. He wasn’t committing a crime,” Crump said.
Crump added that the video did not show Otieno being violent or aggressive in response to the deputies who handled him, yet he was treated in an “inhumane” manner.
“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 knee on his neck, the weight of 7 individuals on his body while he’s face down. And you say “My God, why?!”,” Crump narrated
“It is so unnecessary, is so unjustifiable and you keep searching in your heart for which one of them would have the humanity to say that 11 minutes is far too long to have him down with the weight of our bodies and knees on his neck, ” Crump added.
Krudys, a renowned civil rights lawyer, shed further light on the situation. He questioned why Otieno was moved away from the hospital in the first place.
Many others have also questioned why the police’s first resort was to take him to jail, rather than allow medical personnel give him some calming medication right there at the hospital.
“He needed mental health help, he needed help from physicians, not the brutality of correctional officers. It was at that facility that she should have gotten help, but he was actually whisked out of that hospital before his mother knew that had occurred. And then he was transported over to the jail, which is not far away,” Krudys shared.
According to Krudys, Otieno was seen naked in a small cell, with faeces all over the floor.
After the group of deputies attacked him, he was carried by his arms and legs “like an animal” into a vehicle before being transported to Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie county, Virginia.
Krudys questioned why he was not taken to the much closer Henrico Doctors’ Hospital where he was initially taken from since it was a medical emergency.
Krudys refuted claims made by the Defence that Ms. Baskervill was overcharging the case, in light of the brutality shown in the video.
The attorneys then gave way for Otieno’s brother Leon Ochieng and mother to speak.
Ochieng’s trip to Richmond to celebrate his birthday and spend time with his brother was unfortunately soured by what he called a “tragic, senseless, inhumane nightmare.”
“Can someone explain to me why my brother is not here right now? Someone explain to me why my mother can’t sleep, can’t eat. We’re broken. Our hearts are broken, but our spirits are strong and my brother’s spirit is not done,” Ochieng said tearfully.
“My son was treated like a dog, worse than a dog. I saw it with my own eyes…What I saw was heart-breaking, America. It was disturbing. It was traumatic. My son was tortured, to put it right. I saw the torture,” Ouko painfully shared.
“Henrico County Sheriff deputies were on him—7 people, 7 officers on one man. And all this started when my son went to the hospital on the 3rd [of March] and that evening, he was taken to jail…Those 3 days at Henrico County Jail were a horror!” Ouko added.
His family and their attorney Crump compared Otieno’s killing to that of George Floyd in 2020. Just like Floyd, Otieno was said to be defenceless and yet, they treated him with brute force and placed a knee on his neck.
Henrico Police later confirmed that on March 2, a day before Otieno was arrested, his neighbour called to report a suspicious situation concerning his behaviour.
After speaking with Otieno and a family member of his, the police reclassified the call as a mental health crisis, thus no charges were made.
“All I’m left with is his voice. I cannot be at his wedding. I’ll never see a grandchild out of Otieno because someone refused to help him. No one stood up to stop what was going on,” Ouko said tearfully.
“For now, I’m asking for justice. Justice for my son. Justice for Ivor. That’s all I’m looking for. I’m looking for answers. Why was my son murdered? What was the reason?” Otieno’s mum Caroline Ouko asked emphatically.
Ouko spoke with pride about her son’s talent as a promising hip hop artiste, under the name “Young Vo”, and hopes to own a record label one day.
According to her, he was 4 years old when they came to the US and was “as American as apple pie”, having completed his schooling from kindergarten through to college in the country.
Otieno was also said to be deeply loved by his family and friends, empathetic and a seeker of justice for those who deserved it.
Officers and Hospital Workers Arrested
The Henrico County Sheriff’s Office sent the following press statement to local NBC News.
“As Henrico County Sheriff and on behalf of our entire office, I extend my deepest sympathies and condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Irvo Otieno. The events of March 6, at their core, represent a tragedy because Mr. Otieno’s life was lost. This loss is felt by not only those close to him but our entire community.
The seven deputies who were transferring custody of Mr. Otieno have been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the Commonwealth’s cases.
As an office, we are cooperating fully with the investigation of the Virginia State Police. Separately, we are conducting our own independent review of this incident.
Public safety is what we stand for as a Sheriff’s Office. We will continue to maintain the highest professional standards in how we serve and protect those in our custody, the community at large and our staff.”
Alisa Gregory, Henrico County Sheriff
On Tuesday, March 14, 7 of the deputies who handled Otieno’s case turned themselves in at the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Richmond Field Office, and were subsequently held without bond. They were charged with second degree murder.
2 days later, three hospital workers at Central State Hospital were also arrested and held without bond.
The arrested deputies are expected to appear before a grand jury in court on Tuesday, March 21.
The Criminalisation of Mental Illness
Krump called the video a commentary on how law enforcement agencies in the country “treat people with mental illnesses as criminals, rather than treating them as people who are in need of help”
Otieno’s family also drew attention to the problematic manner in which mental health situations were handled.
“Mental illness should not be your ticket to death. There was a chance to rescue him. There was a chance to stop what was going on and I don’t understand how all systems failed him…They murdered my baby…and those are my questions, why did they do that? What right did they have to do that?” Ouko asked earnestly.
“Mental illness is a problem everywhere. Right here in our country, it’s a problem and after the pandemic, it’s getting worse. Young children in school, young people needing help here and there. I’m talking to parents and mothers who come to me and they’re giving me their own stories of what’s going on in their own homes. Is there a way we can do something to change this so that when someone calls for help, there is a specialised, normal response team, like I was looking for, who can help them?”
Ochieng further spoke on how the incident could possibly discourage several people struggling with mental illnesses from seeking the help that they needed.
“You should have confidence in knowing that the local station, the local police, the local government is working to preserve your life, to make sure that the care that you receive from the minute that they deal with you is at most focused on preserving your life but not ending it,” Ochieng asserted.
The US police force indeed has a history of mistreating people with mental health illness.
Just last year, PBS reported the case of a teenage boy, Arcadio Castillo III, who was killed by the police after his mother reported that he was mentally ill and assaulting her and her husband.
Police shot 23-year-old Castillo dead immediately they arrived at the scene, without trying to pacify him or restrain him. He was only armed with a knife.
Also last year, 36-year-old Matt Jones, suffering from a severe manic episode at the time, was hounded with gunshots while standing on the highway with a handgun.
These incidents, and others like it, were said to be indicative of a larger problem: a shortage of mental health providers.
This means that first responders for such cases would be the police, rather than medical personnel who would be adequately equipped to handle the mentally ill individuals appropriately.
In a 2015 report, the Treatment Advocacy Centre shared that people with untreated mental illness were 16 times more likely to be killed than other civilians during a police encounter.
This statistic is made even more worrisome by the fact that 1 in 5 US adults has a mental illness.
Several calls have been made, both by the government and regular citizens, for the police to adapt their responses to be more accommodating of the mentally ill, yet the police seem to have intensified the brute treatment of such people over the years.
With more awareness given to the gravity of the situation and government intervention to improve mental health care nationwide, perhaps real change can be seen and more tragedies can be averted.
Sources: NBC, CBS 6.