For Princess Blanding, “The Blood” of Irvo Otieno Is on the Hands of Virginia’s Lawmakers

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As mourners gathered to remember Otieno, Blanding, whose two brothers were killed by police, reflects on what needs to change.

On March 6, seven Henrico County sheriff’s deputies and three hospital staff members piled on top of 28-year-old Irvo Otieno for nearly 12 minutes before he stopped moving. Security footage from inside the psychiatric hospital where family members say that Otieno had been experiencing a mental health crisis showed him barefoot, with his hands and feet restrained.

The brutal details surrounding Otieno’s final moments before his death have prompted outrage, leading to second-degree murder charges for the ten people involved in Otieno’s death. But for Princess Blanding, a twisted sense of deja vu has greeted the outrage over another Black man dying at the hands of police and Virginia’s broken mental health system. An activist who, in 2020, ran for governor as a third-party candidate, Blanding’s life has been touched twice by the profound tragedy of losing family members to police violence: Two of Blanding’s younger brothers—19-year-old Joshua Mathis and 24-year-old Marcus-David Peters—were killed at the hands of police; both, according to Blanding, had been experiencing mental health emergencies. 

“It was absolutely preventable,” Blanding said, referring to Otieno’s death. “He was in a location, at Central State Hospital, where he was supposed to get help. And he ended up getting death.”

“The blood of Mr. Otieno is on the hands of every last one of the legislators in the state of Virginia,” she added.

Virginians may already be familiar with Marcus-David Peters whose May 2018 death by police led to the creation of the Marcus Alert, a system that aims to limit law enforcement’s role in responding to mental health emergencies. But since Otieno’s death, some have questioned the program’s effectiveness and why it has yet to be implemented in most Virginia localities. Data from the alert system has also been exceedingly difficult to find. For Blanding, these questions mirror much of the same concerns she had over the final bill’s version that created the Marcus Alert as it works now.

“Most of the components that were very meaningful and gave the bill the teeth that it needed to be successful, they pulled it out,” she told me. According to Blanding, the family’s original list of proposals, including an end to qualified immunity and the creation of a civilian review board, were ignored. 

“We fought tirelessly after my brother, Marcus-David Peters was killed by Richmond police,” said Blanding. “We knew we couldn’t bring him back, so we begged and pleaded with legislators to enact legislation to ensure that having a mental health crisis never resulted in unjust incarceration, brutalization, or death.”

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