Police use-of-force expert on Irvo Otieno video: ‘We know better’

An police use of force experts weighs in on the video of Irvo Otieno's final moments at Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County.
Published: Mar. 30, 2023 at 4:01 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - A nationally known expert in police use of force is weighing in on the death of Irvo Otieno.

“I think it’s about as classic an example of doing the wrong thing is as I can think of because we’ve known now for more than 30 years, don’t do this,” said Seth Stoughton.

NBC12 asked the UVA grad and former police officer about what he sees in the security video that captured Otieno’s death at Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie.

Stoughton studied police tactics and use of force cases for the last decade. He testifies in courtrooms across America. Most notably, he was the prosecution’s use-of-force expert in the Derek Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd.

“The most problematic aspect of what I saw is a large number of officers who are keeping an individual face down, apparently with some degree of weight on his back, while he’s in handcuffs, for an extended period of time,” he said.

Stoughton is talking about the prone restraint. That’s when a person is put facedown, on their stomach, with pressure on the back, for an extended period of time. Officers frequently use it to handcuff a suspect.

A New York Police Department training video from 2003 showed an expert teaching officers about the dangers of this tactic, saying, “persons on their stomachs can’t breathe with pressure applied to their back. As soon as suspects are handcuffed, get them off their stomachs, turn them on their sides.”

Also, the U.S. Justice Department issued an advisory to police nearly 30 years ago in 1995, warning this type of restraint could lead to death. The advisory says, “to minimize the risk of sudden in-custody death, officers should learn to recognize factors contributing to positional asphyxia and, where possible, avoid the use of prone restraint techniques.”

“We know better, and we keep making the same mistake. And at some point, it’s just not acceptable anymore,” said Stoughton, now a law professor at the University of South Carolina.

He says the tricky part with the prone restraint is it might be incredibly dangerous for one person and not for another because of health factors. He says it’s an important position in police training for apprehending a suspect.

“When someone is on their stomach, it’s much easier for officers to put them in handcuffs. And it’s very hard for that individual to fight back or resist effectively. But almost universally, officers are trained that once someone has been secured, that is once someone is in handcuffs, for example, they need to be taken out of that prone position,” said Stoughton.

In Otieno’s case, he was already in handcuffs and leg shackles. That’s where Stoughton says he sees issues.

“First is, the officers took a restrained individual and put him into the prone position. This was not a position that they were in as they were securing him. He was in other positions. First, he was sitting in the chair. He was laying on his side first, and he was moved into an unnecessarily dangerous position,” said Stoughton.

The other issue he sees is how long Otieno was kept in that position.

“Prone position is supposed to be transitory. You get someone into the prone position to secure them, put them in handcuffs, maybe even apply leg shackles, and then you get them out of that position,” said Stoughton.

The video has no sound. We don’t know what was said in the room, and Stoughton says we need to keep that in mind.

“We should be careful to acknowledge that one video or even a couple of videos don’t really give us the full story about something. But even accepting that is true, there is no justification for taking a secured, handcuffed, shackled individual and keeping them on their stomach under the weight of multiple officers for a prolonged period of time. That’s just not necessary.″

There is also no federal database tracking police use of force deaths. But Stoughton says this isn’t just about more training anymore.

He says officers need to intervene and hold each other accountable. Supervisors need to be reviewing patient intakes and use-of-force incidents to correct a pattern of missteps before deaths happen.

As of now, Virginia State Police is still investigating this incident. The Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney is investigating what happened in the Henrico Jail prior to Otieno being taken to Central State.

All 10 people charged in this case are out on bond and have attorneys.