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Henrico NAACP questions Marcus Alert data after Irvo Otieno’s death

Five people in formal clothing walk while looking down. One in the center holds a photo of another person
Whittney Evans
VPM News
The family of Irvo Otieno spoke with reporters after seeing the video of Otieno's death at Central State Hospital. The family said Otieno had been "treated like a dog."

The program hasn’t yet been fully implemented in most Virginia localities.

The Henrico County NAACP is raising concerns about the county’s investment in mental and behavioral health care following the death of 28-year-old Irvo Otieno at Central State Hospital. Otieno, who lived in Henrico, died March 6 after he was transported to the Dinwiddie County facility.

Video footage shows Henrico sheriff’s deputies pinning Otieno to the floor for nearly 11 minutes. Ten people — seven Henrico deputies and three Central State Hospital employees — have been charged with second-degree murder in his death.

Henrico NAACP Vice President Monica Hutchinson told VPM News that the organization has been advocating for criminal justice reform in Henrico for years.

“When we discuss criminal justice reform, mental health has got to be a very big piece of this conversation,” Hutchinson said. “These issues intersect.”

Hutchinson also said one thing standing in the way of the organization’s advocacy is a lack of data on the county’s Marcus Alert implementation. According to her, it’s “really hard to find concrete data and information” on the program across Virginia.

The Marcus Alert is a program designed to triage active mental health crises into four tiers, ideally responding to calls with behavioral health professionals and only involving police in certain situations. Enshrined in state law in 2020, Marcus Alert sets up a framework for localities to provide help during behavioral health crises.

It’s named after Marcus-David Peters, a high school teacher who was shot and killed by a Richmond police officer in 2018 while experiencing a mental health crisis.

In part, the program seeks to remove law enforcement from the equation on low-risk calls — the first two tiers of a four-tier response system — and bars police from responding to tier one calls. Police are required to become involved when an individual assaults others, threatens their or others’ lives, or when a firearm is present.

But the program hasn’t been implemented in Henrico County or most Virginia localities. While the original Marcus Alert bill would have required the system statewide by January 2022, the final version approved by then-Gov. Ralph Northam created a staggered rollout that ends July 1, 2026. That was further delayed to 2028 by the 2022 General Assembly.

Peters’ sister, Princess Blanding, advocated for the Marcus Alert bill but later criticized the final version at a bill signing. Blanding rebuked legislators for delaying implementation.

“Please take a moment to pat yourselves on the back for doing exactly what this racist, corrupt system, and broken may I also add, expected you all to do: Make the Marcus alert bill a watered-down, ineffective bill that will continue to ensure that having a mental health crisis results in a death sentence,” Blanding said during the ceremony.

Henrico County spokesperson Will Jones said the county has set up a voluntary database through the program, as required by state law. It gives residents the option to submit behavioral health information that call center employees can reference.

“Henrico County is committed to ensuring that all providers of emergency services are equipped with the most advanced training in mental health and crisis support services,” Jones told VPM News. He also pointed to the county’s 2008 launch of its Crisis Intervention Team, a partnership between first responders and local behavioral health organizations to respond to mental health crises.

Jones said the county is still planning full Marcus Alert implementation by summer 2024 — per state law — and that all eligible Henrico County officers have completed a 40-hour crisis intervention training.

Jones did not comment on Otieno’s case. The circumstances surrounding his death are under investigation by Virginia State Police.

Still, Hutchinson said the Henrico NAACP has asked for more data on the county’s response to mental health calls, including how calls are categorized and what responses they got.

“While I appreciate Henrico getting [their crisis intervention team] up as quickly as they did, I don’t want to sit here and make it seem like they reinvented the wheel with this,” she said. “There’s other pieces that’s missing.”

The NAACP chapter is also advocating for a disparity study in the county.

There are barriers in places that have fully implemented Marcus Alert as well, including the city of Richmond. John Lindstrom, CEO of the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, told VPM News Focal Point’s Adrienne McGibbon that the nonpolice response teams are a great resource for low-level calls — when they’re on the clock.

RBHA doesn’t have enough staff on mobile crisis units to operate 24/7. The same goes for police-partnered community response teams, which respond to higher-risk calls.

“We’re going to be looking to develop that further,” Lindstrom told VPM News Focal Point. “But our hope is to use to a maximum extent possible deescalation to reduce the chances of triggering the kind of behaviors, whether it's on the police side or the or the individual side, that would result in a physical conflict, physical restraint, altercation and the like.”

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.