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Statement of the National Association of Social Workers Virginia Chapter on the Irvo Otieno Murder: Criminalization of the Mentally Ill Must Stop

The grieving family of Irvo Otieno laid him to rest March 28 at a funeral that was sadly familiar to Virginians and an outraged national audience. At 28, the Richmond man was at an age when many people are building careers, starting families, working toward their dreams.

Mr. Otieno had dreams--to be a hip hop musician—but his voice is now frozen in time on his recordings. Instead, diagnosed with mental illness, he was heading to Central State Hospital, where family hoped he would receive needed medical services. Mr. Otieno never made it.

Instead—in a case bearing disturbing similarities to the horrific George Floyd murder—he apparently suffocated under the combined weight of seven Henrico County sheriff deputies who—as video footage shows--allegedly piled on top of his prone handcuffed, shackled body. All seven, along with three hospital security guards, have since been charged with second-degree murder and released on bail.

Why do mentally ill people keep getting confused with criminals and treated as such? Mental illness is just that—an illness, a medical condition in need of treatment by trained professionals in a safe, supportive environment. That service to the sick never happened for Mr. Otieno.

Encounters between law enforcement and people with mental illness are often dangerous to both parties, but too often, undertrained police respond with excessive force, according to the National Association of Social Workers. Its policy research cites 2012 evidence that “nearly 50 percent of the almost 500 police killings a year are of people with mental illness, most posing no immediate threat to the police or others.”

In addition, when people with mentally illness are placed in ill-equipped local and county jails, these facilities become, as NASW calls them, “de facto mental health institutions.” Released untreated back into society without specialized support, medications, or diagnoses, such individuals are often re-arrested for behavioral-related infractions.

Virginia has been in a mental health crisis since well before the pandemic. Annual statistics show that nearly 20% of state residents has experienced a mental illness—that’s more than 1.7 million people with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other serious conditions.

With a number that high, clashes between police and mentally ill residents—especially those of color--are hardly unique, and you’d think appropriate processes, systems, training, and personnel would be in place.

But time and again, senseless tragedies such as the murder of Mr. Otieno make headlines, fade, and then re-emerge cloaked in the name and terrible images of yet another mentally ill person killed or seriously injured by law enforcement. This is not acceptable nor sustainable in a civil society that seeks equity, acceptance, and justice for its citizens.

NASW and its Virginia Chapter believe that “public safety should be the ultimate goal of the criminal justice system. Increases in rehabilitative and clinical services to criminal justice system-involved populations can reduce the rates of re-arrests and recidivism.”

“Mental illness should not be your ticket to death,” said Mr. Otieno’s mother, Caroline Ouko, to the Richmond Times Dispatch. “There was a chance to rescue him, to stop what was going on. All systems failed him.”

With enough will, though, broken systems can be dismantled and rebuilt. The General Assembly and Gov. Youngkin have a unique opportunity right now to start this transformation by dramatically increasing mental health funding in the new state budget and installing major reforms throughout the criminal justice system with an emphasis on eliminating racial, ethnic, and gender disparities.

Although lawmakers continue to squabble over budget differences, both political parties have voiced strong support for more investments in mental and behavioral health. Our chapter—through working group leadership by Executive Director Debra Riggs, CAE--is among the healthcare, criminal justice, and other organizations advising the Commonwealth on implementation of the governor’s $230-million mental health plan, Right Time, Right Care.

The NASW Virginia Chapter calls on them all to move passed the politics and instead focus on protecting and uplifting their citizens, especially those made vulnerable through mental illness.


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