What the murder of Irvo Otieno teaches us about America’s healthcare

T.Ilvo Otieno’s suffocation, captured on video, was a reminder of the deaths of other black men who died under the weight of law enforcement: Daniel Prud, Eric Garner and George Floyd. However, Otieno died not on the street, but inside the Virginia State Psychiatric Hospital.

Seven lawmakers were charged with second-degree murder, and his death highlights how our mental health care and criminal justice systems continue to prosecute patients, rely too heavily on the police, and sometimes die. We have to consider whether it will bring results.

Addressing Otieno’s death, Virginia’s Republican governor Glenn Youngkin said at a press conference that it was clear the state’s mental health care system was “overwhelmed.” It wasn’t just the lack of service. A crisis management team was present at the initial encounter with police, who took him to a specialized containment center. And when he died, he was in the care of a state hospital. But just because he was admitted for treatment didn’t protect him from what prosecutors said was a lethal use of police force.

Increasing mental health care is not a simple panacea. In my years of coverage of mental health care and the justice system, psychologists and disability rights advocates believe that increasing mental health resources is essential to providing people with the care they need. but also told me that we need to rethink how we treat those people as criminals every step of the way. of the road.

Colleen Miller, executive director of the Virginia Disability Law Center, said: “Did he have access to services before the crisis? Could something different have happened in the hospital? Could something different have happened in prison? There are many ways we could have done it.”

According to his family, Otieno experienced a mental health crisis on March 3 when he wandered into a neighbor’s property, picked up a lawn light, and banged on the door. Otieno’s mother, Caroline Ouko, sought help from her son’s psychiatrist that day, hoping to take her son to the hospital. Henrico County police said they responded to reports of a “possible robbery” with a crisis intervention team.

A specially trained team was established more than a decade ago to help people in emotional distress and avoid “unnecessary imprisonment and hospitalization.” Ouko told reporters that several police officers fired stun guns, frightening his son. She pleaded with them to treat him in an ambulance, she said.

Officers recognized Otieno’s mental condition and took him to the hospital. However, when he continued his behavior, they arrested him. Otieno was removed from psychiatric treatment and charged with assaulting law enforcement and other charges. Despite being in the hospital’s psychiatric department showing symptoms many psychiatrists see as symptoms of his mental illness, he ultimately faced five criminal charges.

After being imprisoned, Otieno seems to have gotten worse. Prisons are one of the worst places for people in a psychiatric crisis because of their segregation, lack of treatment and possible violence, according to psychologists, but severe mental illness It is also a place where people with Despite increasing efforts to send trained mental health professionals to many of his 911 calls, police remain the primary responders in most of the country. These interactions can result in detention for use of force and minor offenses such as disorderly conduct, trespassing, and resisting arrest.

In 2021, Virginia created its own crisis response program to replace the police. This is three years after biology teacher Marcus David Peters was shot by a Richmond police officer as an unarmed black man in emotional distress. But Henrico County, where Otieno was arrested, has yet to fully implement the program, according to his local NAACP. Also, non-police response teams across the country are limited, lack the resources to operate 24/7, or face restrictions on the types of calls they are deployed. .

Otieno’s family said Otieno was denied medication while in Henrico County Jail. Officers put Otieno in a van and took him to a state psychiatric hospital for the treatment he believed he needed when he was first arrested. Surveillance video from the hospital shows that his agent dragged Otieno, tied at his wrists and ankles, into a hospital room where police and hospital employees piled on top of him for 11 minutes until Otieno suffocated. increase.

Defense attorneys for the sheriff’s deputy (three hospital employees have also been charged with second-degree murder) said Otieno was belligerent when he entered the mental institution.

Mental health cases can develop into this toxic exchange. to go. The hospital then summons the police when it determines that same person is too destructive to control.

Patients are dragged from their wards into solitary confinement, cut off from treatment, and further insecure. As hospital understaffing worsens and health workers report an increase in violence, these cases may become more common, creating a pressing need for alternative solutions, the study suggests. .

Even patients moving into long-term care can be detained and arrested by the police if it is recognized that someone is in need of treatment.

This is not just a Virginia problem. A Department of Justice investigation of the Louisville Police Department found patterns of discrimination “in dealing with people with behavioral problems.” In one case, Louisville police officers took a man to a psychiatric hospital, pinned him to the ground and injured him after making sexually inappropriate comments. Responding to a call from a therapy facility saying the girl was hurting herself, he ended up tasting her multiple times, possibly resulting in a medical seizure.

In my report, as Ouko’s attorney put it, if we want to keep people like Otieno from being “sucked” into the criminal justice system, the police and prosecutors will have to deal with the arrest and detention of those who are clearly acting. It turns out that the prosecution may need to be reconsidered. Out for their illness. It may also require more resources for health care providers to increase staffing and reduce reliance on law enforcement.

“Mental illness should not be your ticket to death,” Otieno’s mother Ouko said. She said, “I had a chance to rescue him, a chance to stop progress, and I don’t understand how the whole system failed him.”

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