Otieno’s death begs questions about Marcus Alert in Henrico

Ivo's family also continues to demand change when it comes to mental health and policing.
Published: Mar. 22, 2023 at 8:19 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 24, 2023 at 9:06 AM EDT
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Note: This story has been updated since it originally aired with a response from the Henrico County Police Department.

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WWBT) - Irvo Otieno’s family continues to demand change regarding mental health and policing following his death at Central State Hospital.

Virginia created the “Marcus Alert System” in 2021, designed to respond better when someone calls for help during a mental health crisis. It is centered around de-escalation and requires a team of mental health professionals to be a part of the police response.

Right now, Henrico has yet to launch the program fully. While the county has until 2028 to implement it, some question why Henrico would wait.

“The balance of power in Henrico County, right now as it stands, is still with those who will not fund mental health adequately in this county,” Henrico NAACP Vice President Monica Hutchison said. “The balance of power in Henrico county currently lies with those who will not implement Marcus Alert.”

The point of the Marcus Alert program is to keep people out of harm’s way when going through a mental health emergency.

That is something the Otieno family says was needed to help their loved one.

“It is a living nightmare that we’re going through,” Irvo’s brother Leon Ochieng said. “And I think that if we don’t do something about this now, we are going to continue to have these narratives. We need to change the narrative.”

12 On Your Side reached out to Henrico County and Henrico Police to see what stage they are at in the process of rolling out the program.

On Friday, March 24, the Henrico County Police Department provided this response:

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. That is why Henrico established the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) in 2008. Currently, all eligible officers of the Police Division and deputies of the Sheriff’s Office have received the required 40 hours of CIT training. (More information here)

In addition, Henrico is in full compliance with Virginia state law with regard to its planned implementation of the Marcus Alert System in 2024. As required by the Marcus-David Peters Act of 2020, localities in each designated region are scheduled to join the system in an order based largely on population. In the Central Region, the City of Richmond was the first locality to implement the system. Henrico is set to submit its plan by January 2024, following the more populous Chesterfield County. In preparation, Henrico has established its Marcus Alert Database, at https://henrico.us/services/marcus-alert-database/. The timeline for local participation is established by the state and is not a matter that has or will come before the Board of Supervisors.

“The point behind the mental health initiative is to provide that support,” Ochieng said.

The city of Richmond launched the program in 2021 and bolstered it in mid-2022.

Chesterfield County is following suit this July.

“A mental health crisis should never be a death sentence, and jail is not nor has it ever been the best place for those having a mental health crisis,” Hutchison said.

Richmond leaders say they’ve witnessed the success of Marcus Alert first-hand.

The city saw more than 227 emergency calls from August to December of 2022, and none resulted in force or injury. There was also a 91% diversion rate.

The program’s crisis response teams work together to de-escalate the situation. Sometimes, the police do not respond, and the mental health experts take care of it.

The Otieno family says this is the type of response Irvo needed.

“We need to start a new future where we don’t have to provide videos as evidence of how someone was killed when we can clearly see how he was killed,” Ochieng said.

The Marcus Alert Database allows people to enter their mental health history and emergency contact information for first responders to use. For more information, click here.