“They suffocated my baby,” his mother denounced. A harrowing video, showing the death of a black man crushed under a dozen police officers and caregivers during his admission to a psychiatric hospital, was released on Tuesday in the United States. The death of Irvo Otieno on March 6 in the state of Virginia has reignited the debate about how American law enforcement treats people with mental illness.
Seven Henrico County police officers and three mostly African-American Central State Hospital officers in Petersburg and three hospital workers were charged with murder last week.
The local prosecutor, Ann Cabell Baskervill, had indicated that the young man, aged 28, had died “by asphyxiation”, while he “was physically restrained”, without giving further details.
Crushed for 11 minutes
A video of the tragedy, filmed by a surveillance camera and published Tuesday by several media, shows his arrival at the hospital after three days in a cell. Handcuffed, his ankles shackled, he is bare-chested and without shoes, and advances bent over, pulled by agents.
He is first seated on the ground, his back against an armchair. A few minutes later, this young man with an imposing physique is tackled to the ground under several agents – three at the start, up to 10 at the end of the scene – who obstruct his view.
They seem to want to immobilize him to strap his legs and press on different parts of his body, especially in the stomach, for at least eleven minutes. When they release their pressure, Irvo Otieno is unconscious and pulseless. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
“They treated him like a dog”
The video had been shown beforehand to the family of Irvo Otieno, who wanted it to be broadcast. “Even though my son was in the midst of a mental illness, what I saw was heartbreaking,” his mother Caroline Ouko commented at a press conference on Thursday. “They treated him like a dog, worse than a dog,” she added.
Family lawyer Ben Crump drew a parallel with the murder of George Floyd, a black man in his forties who died in 2020 and was suffocated by a white Minneapolis policeman. The video of his ordeal, which had gone around the world, had sparked a huge mobilization against racism and police violence.