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Mental health expert calls for change after Irvo Otieno's death

Virginia's mental health system has been in need of revamping for years, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia.

NORFOLK, Va. — The death of Irvo Otieno has some mental health experts in Virginia calling for change.

Surveillance video shows a group of sheriff's deputies and other personnel at a Central State Hospital forcibly pinning Otieno to the ground until he was motionless, the Associated Press reports. Seven deputies and three hospital workers face second-degree murder charges.

Kathy Harkey, the executive director of Virginia’s National Alliance of Mental Illness, is taking this moment to call for change.

“I think the magnitude of the problem has just been kind of swept under the rug for a long time," Harkey said.

She argues that Virginia's criminal justice system is not equipped to respond to mental health medical emergencies in a state where mental illness impacts one in five people every year.

“Compassionate, humane systems need to be in place to treat this as a medical emergency as opposed to a criminal call," Harkey said.

That’s where Crisis Intervention Teams come in. CIT was developed by the Memphis Police Department in 1988 after the shooting death of an individual suffering from mental illness. 

Most police departments offer CIT training in Virginia.

The Norfolk Police Department said, “Training is across the board, including dispatchers."

The Virginia Beach Police Department said more than 50% of the force is CIT certified.

And in Newport News, officers complete “real-life-based scenarios” during their training.

“Most police departments have moved forward with this training. And to be honest, many, many officers do an outstanding job, and they do put the patient first and they do look at this as a medical emergency when they arrive on scene," Harkey said.

But in Henrico County, where Otieno died, our news partners NBC12 uncovered public records that show all seven deputies charged in his death “completed 40 hours or more of crisis intervention team training.”

“I was of course discouraged when I saw they had CIT training, but at the same time, it showed me that we need to do a little bit more," Harkey said. "We need to educate people to ask for CIT officers. And we also need to educate 911 or 988 officers to let police know, this is a medical health emergency and crisis call, it's not a criminal call."

Harkey said in addition to more funding, there is a need to educate everyday people to ask for CIT officers when calling 911 to report a mental health crisis.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia issued the following statement following Otieno's death:

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