Justice and accountability needed in Irvo Otieno’s death

9/21/2023, 6 p.m.
Yesterday’s announcement about a settlement being reached in the case of Irvo Otieno, a 28-year-old Black man who died while ...

Yesterday’s announcement about a settlement being reached in the case of Irvo Otieno, a 28-year-old Black man who died while being restrained at a Virginia psychiatric hospital, elevates discussions about the need for mental health and policing reforms.

While the $8.5 million settlement has brought some relief to Mr. Otieno’s family, it also raises important questions about accountability and the systemic issues that led to this tragic incident.

Irvo Otieno’s death occurred earlier this year in March when he was forcibly held down on the floor of Central State Hospital for approximately 11 minutes by a group of Henrico County sheriff’s deputies and hospital employees. The surveillance video capturing the incident shocked Virginia and the nation. Outrage and demands for justice followed when the video evidence clearly showed the excessive force used against Mr. Otieno, leading to his asphyxiation and subsequent death.

Following the incident, 10 defendants, including both sheriff’s deputies and hospital employees, were indicted on second-degree murder charges. However, it is disheartening to note that charges against two of the hospital employees were later dropped. This raises concerns about the thoroughness of the investigation and the potential for accountability to be undermined.

The $8.5 million settlement reached between Mr. Otieno’s family and the state, county, and sheriff’s office is a significant development in this case. Yet, the settlement fails to include an admission of liability from the defendants, who continue to deny that their actions caused Mr. Otieno’s death. While the settlement provides some financial relief to the family, it falls short of holding the responsible parties fully accountable.

Mr. Otieno’s tragic death has shed light on the urgent need for mental health and policing reforms. It is evident that individuals with mental health issues require specialized care and support, rather than being subjected to excessive force. Mr. Otieno’s case underscores the importance of training law enforcement officers and healthcare professionals to handle such situations with empathy, de-escalation techniques, and a focus on preserving life.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s pushed for a settlement in this case, stated his spokesperson, Macaulay Porter, “with the hope that doing so proactively and fairly might alleviate – in a small way – some of the suffering that Irvo’s mother and brother faced, recognizing that no settlement can take the place of a loved one.”

We can only hope that the governor gives further air to this tragedy by supporting efforts to expand access to mental health services. At the federal level, part of President Joe Biden’s Unity Agenda contains a comprehensive national strategy to transform how mental health is understood, accessed, treated, and integrated in and out of health care settings.

The President’s FY24 budget goes further, proposing tens of billions more to transform behavioral health services for all Americans.

Although the settlement reached in Mr. Otieno’s case may offer some degree of justice and financial support to his grieving family, it does not erase the larger issues of systemic racism, excessive force, and the urgent need for mental health and policing reforms.

To prevent such senseless tragedies, we must be vigilant in working to ensure that they are thoroughly investigated, responsible parties are held accountable and real reforms are enacted.