NORTH CHESTERFIELD, Va. — As hundreds gathered Wednesday to memorialize Irvo Otieno’s life, who was suffocated to death by sheriff’s deputies at a Virginia mental hospital, conviction and a desire for change rang throughout the crowd.
“His name will be heralded all over to stand up for the abused with mental health,” said civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton as he delivered Otieno’s eulogy on Wednesday at First Baptist of South Richmond. “There will be an Irvo Law. There must be an Irvo Law to protect those that are in mental health facilities that are treated wrong.”
Those in the crowd stood up and cheered in agreement.
“The way to handle mental health is not death,” Sharpton said.
The 28-year-old Black man died on March 6 while in the custody of Henrico County Sheriff’s deputies at Central State Hospital where seven sheriff’s deputies and three hospital employees pinned down Otieno for 12 minutes. Dinwiddie Commonwealth’s Attorney Ann Cabell Baskervill has said Otieno was smothered to death.
Gregg Townsend, Otieno’s high school science teacher, believes that just like when George Floyd died in 2020 from police suffocating him which sparked a national movement, Otieno’s death should also invoke national change.
“It would be a really great testimony to him. If this became the moment and if this became the thing, and it had his name to it,” Townsend said.
‘WE WILL STAND FOR YOU’: Hundreds of mourners gather to remember Irvo Otieno
‘Completely preventable’: Multiple systems failed Otieno
Otieno’s family and their attorneys have alleged that he was having a mental health crisis when he encountered law enforcement earlier this month.
Otieno was first taken into custody on March 3, when police transported him to Henrico Doctors’ Hospital for mental health treatment under an emergency custody order.
After Otieno became aggressive, according to police, he was arrested and taken to a local jail, a decision that Otieno’s family says never should have happened due to his mental state and need for treatment. While he was at the local jail for three days, he did not have access to any medication.
On the afternoon of March 6, Otieno was transferred to the state hospital. Video released earlier this month shows seven sheriff’s deputies and three hospital employees pinning down a lethargic Otieno while he had shackles on his hands and feet for 12 minutes — standing by were other hospital employees, just watching.
He reportedly suffocated. Otieno’s family and their attorneys have said Otieno posed no danger and was only trying to breathe.
“There were many opportunities to intercede,” Townsend said. “And no one did at any point. So that’s really the sad part of this is it was completely preventable at any point if someone just treated him with some dignity and respect and as someone who was sick.”
As his science teacher, Townsend said that Otieno was intelligent and ambitious. But the thing he remembers most about Otieno was his big smile.
Townsend was also their class sponsor at Freeman High School, the faculty advocate for the group as they moved through school. He was shocked when he got the news of Otieno’s death.
Despite police describing him as violent, Townsend knew him to be a “gentle giant.”
“He always respected others and was looking out for others but always had his own self-determination. He knew where he wanted to go. He was always striving to be a good student,” he said.
Townsend believes that change starts with awareness, education, and resources to invest in mental help. “Be mindful of action, call to action, mindful of elections, to be mindful of voting for initiatives, things like that. That’s things I can do,” Townsend said.
Contributing: The Associated Press
Joyce Chu, an award-winning investigative journalist, is the Social Justice Watchdog Reporter for The Progress Index. Contact her with comments, concerns, or story-tips at Jchu1@gannett.com or on Twitter @joyce_speaks.