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Activists say Marcus alert system isn’t doing enough

Two brothers in blue shirts stand behind their sister, who smiling at the camera. She is very close to the camera, because she is holding the camera to take the selfie of her and her brothers.
Family of Irvo Otieno, who died during an encouter with law enforcement in Petersburg, in this handout picture from an unknown location released on March 16, 2023.

After the death of Irvo Otieno at Central State Hospital. The sister of man shot and killed by Richmond police while he was experiencing a mental health crisis says the Marcus Alert System isn’t doing enough to protect Virginians struggling with mental health challenges.


ADRIENNE McGIBBON: After the death of 28-year-old Irvo Otieno while in police custody at Virginia Central State Hospital, there's tremendous frustration among advocates pushing for changes in how police respond to mental health care calls.

PRINCESS BLANDING: I've been very outspoken about the failures of the markers alert system named after my brother Marcus-David Peters and this is a prime example.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Virginia passed the Marcus-David Peters act in 2020. It was named for Marcus-David Peters, who was 24 and experiencing a mental health crisis when he was shot by a Richmond police officer, Princess Blanding, who's Peters' sister and an activist who ran for Virginia governor in 2021, worked with legislators to craft the law.

PRINCESS BLANDING: After Marcus was murdered we said we can't bring him back, but what we can do is craft legislation to ensure that having a mental health crisis does not result in excessive use of force, right? Unjust incarceration, and then too many cases of murder. And it fell on our doorsteps here in Virginia, not far from Richmond. Yet again.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: The legislation created the Marcus Alert System to provide help for people experiencing a mental health crisis. It calls for providing a behavioral health response to behavioral health emergencies. Blanding points out that Otieno was inside a psychiatric hospital when he was killed. She says mental health professionals need specific training to handle aggression.

PRINCESS BLANDING: What's sad and unfortunate is that he was in a place where he was supposed to get care, right? Where there were people who were supposed to be trained, you know, to deal with people who are aggressive. If you're not in your right frame of mind, you don't care that a police officer is present. You know? And it resulted in him being murdered.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: The Marcus Alert System is in the early stages of implementation. Five pilot programs went into effect last year, including one in Richmond.

PRINCESS BLANDING: As we said, let's get people out these mental health professionals and peer recovery specialist that have that lived experience. Let's get them in the community. Let's start to break down the stigma surrounding mental health, especially in the black communities where we oftentimes don't feel comfortable asking for help.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: The Richmond Police Department is partnering with the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority to establish protocols for responding to mental health crises. The CEO of Richmond Behavioral Health says they've been providing many of these services for years, but the law has made some positive changes.

JOHN LINDSTROM: It's not like nothing existed before, right? So Marcus Alert brings some new strategies and some new requirements to the process.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Lindstrom points to crisis intervention training, or CIT, as one benefit of the Marcus Alert.

JOHN LINDSTROM: I mean, it is an effective practice. And it's good because the vast majority of interactions with individuals with mental health issues initiate with police. But when Marcus Alert does is it sets up the expectation that we have more formalized communication protocols between emergency communications, or 911, and the rest of the behavioral health system.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Richmond has two community response teams that are trained to respond to mental health crises.

JOHN LINDSTROM: That consists of a behavioral health clinician and a trained law enforcement officer and they've cross trained, so they know some police culture and operational issues. And they you know, vice versa. It's designed to provide some assurance to the community that we're working on this. That we, we heard the concerns about fearing calling, not sure what they're going to get. And we're asking them to work with us in developing out the system, so that there's going to be times and they'll understand there's going to be times where the circumstances warrant police.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: In the case of Irvo Otieno's death Lindstrom says he isn't familiar with the specifics but warns...

JOHN LINDSTROM: There's nothing in any plan that provides the absolute assurance that under certain circumstances something might not happen that none of us would want to see happen.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Despite mistrust, Lindstrom encourages people dealing with mental health challenges to reach out for help.

JOHN LINDSTROM: I know that some people just don't want to call because they fear what will happen. I think that there's much less possibility that their fears would be realized. I cannot assure that there's no chance.

ADRIENNE McGIBBON: Although Princess Blanding is critical of the slow rollout of the Marcus Alert System, she does acknowledge that it's made some positive differences.

JOHN LINDSTROM: I am thankful that there is something you know I have a close community member who's like a family member to me telling me that she had to call for someone else, and she was very thankful that that individual that was dealing with a crisis was handled with love and care. But we need that to be consistent.


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