Princess Blanding and her family have endured the pain of losing two relatives experiencing a mental health crisis to police violence within a five-year period.
The trauma of watching body camera footage of the minutes before her “brothers” died is acute. And the recent death of Irvo Otieno in Virginia is reigniting her call to fix mental health and police systems that harm too many Black people.
Blanding, 40, says she can’t bear to watch any more of the videos of Black people being killed by the police — but she did watch a few seconds of the last moments Otieno was alive.
“It just makes me so angry, and my heart and love immediately went out to his family, as I more than understand. I’ve been down this road not once but twice,” she tells Capital B.
Blanding grew up in the same home as Marcus-David Peters, and their families were so close that they were like siblings. Peters, 24, was a biology teacher at Essex High School in Tappahannock, Virginia, who was shot three times on May 18, 2018, in Richmond. It’s unclear what triggered Peters to drive erratically, crashing his car into another vehicle and fleeing the scene. When officers caught up with him along Interstate 95, he was naked and doing snow angels on the pavement. At some point, an unarmed Peters ran toward Richmond officer Michael Nyantakyi, who deployed a stun gun that failed to slow him down and shot Peters three times.
Unimaginable tragedy struck again for Blanding when her biological brother, Joshua Mathis, was killed in January 2022. Thirty-six hours before the 19-year-old was shot to death by Hillsborough, New Jersey, police officer Christopher Michaels while brandishing a knife, Mathis was admitted to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. Blanding says her little brother’s COVID-19 diagnosis, in part, pushed him over the edge with thoughts he was going to die. Statistics such as Black people are more likely to die of COVID at a higher rate than whites, Blanding said, didn’t ease Mathis, who also had an underlying condition of asthma.
After he was released, Mathis sent a lengthy text message to his mother telling her that he was suicidal and was denied a prescription for painkillers by hospital staff. He said he wanted to use the pills to overdose. Capital B exclusively obtained the text message and reviewed it for this report.
At some point on Jan. 9, Mathis called 911 on himself twice before police arrived. He was armed with a knife and asked the officers multiple times to shoot him. Within seconds of the officers trying to negotiate with Mathis to put the knife down, Mathis walked toward the officers. One of the officers used their stun gun on Mathis and Michaels shot him, body camera videos show.
The New Jersey attorney general’s office is currently reviewing Mathis’ case.
“If you’re Black and having a mental health crisis, you know, it’s gonna result in the same as Marcus-David Peters, as Joshua Mathis, and as Irvo Otieno,” Blanding said. “You’re just at a higher likelihood of ‘the problem being taken out,’ meaning being killed, instead of getting help.”
Blanding is determined to turn her grief into a purpose, and she’ll never stop challenging whether police officers should interact with individuals having a mental health crisis.
“The way that mental health is addressed in general is problematic. We treat mental health as a crime, not as a medical emergency,” she says.
‘Irvo’s blood is on all of our legislators’ hands’
From the 1984 fatal police shooting in the Bronx, New York, of 66-year-old Eleanor Bumpurs to the “smothering” death of 28-year-old Otieno, families, activists, and mental health advocates continue to demand more police accountability and tangible solutions to dealing with people in the throes of mental health episodes without it ending in death.
Black people “are nearly three times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans,” according to a 2019 article in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, whether a mental illness has been diagnosed or not. People who called the police on themselves during a crisis were more than likely killed, and when it comes to police killing people with mental illness, white people are the most affected, according to separate reports by The Washington Post’s internal police killings database.
Some efforts have been made across the country to address this issue, including eight-hour deescalation training courses and multi-county mental health emergency phone numbers created for the public to call instead of 911, such as the Marcus Alert — named in memory of Peters.
Blanding said the original Marcus Alert legislation included proactive provisions that would provide training and resources for police and the community that may have prevented Otieno’s death.
During the civil uprising of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, the Richmond community, like many others around the world, joined in. When Floyd’s name was chanted, demonstrators added Peters’ to remind elected officials that they cannot send their thoughts and prayers to other jurisdictions when they have their own Floyd right in their backyards.
The relationship between the police and the Black community is “very strained,” Blanding said. “We don’t trust the police, and we damn sure don’t trust the police to police themselves.”
Kalia Harris, executive director of Virginia Student Power Network, said that the community is “still living the trauma of the years of brutality, whether it was the killing of Marcus-David Peters” or Timothy Johnson, who was shot by a Fairfax County police officer last month after allegedly stealing sunglasses at a Nordstrom department store.
After Peters’ death, out of fear that the community would continue to protest, Blanding said, “performative politicians” entertained her family’s request to create the behavioral health emergency phone number that would, in part, work with law enforcement to connect callers to a regional crisis call center that will determine what type of intervention is needed.
Blanding said her family had to fight to have it named after Peters.
“And although we have the Marcus Alert in place, with my brother’s name on it, it is not the life-saving system that we crafted it to be so that having a mental health crisis would never result in a death sentence,” she said.
Richmond residents protested for 100 days in 2020, demanding that police funds be reallocated to legislation such as the Marcus Alert to prevent calls for help from turning into a lifetime of regret for the caller.
“There’s this legacy of police violence and killings that really continues” in Virginia, especially in Richmond — the capital of the state and the Confederacy — that some lawmakers would rather ignore and add more funding to the police under the guise of reducing crime, Harris says.
The bill that eventually passed is a significantly watered down effort that had a half-baked rollout last summer that’s restricted to only five jurisdictions in Virginia. Henrico County, where Otieno lived, doesn’t have the Marcus Alert three-digit phone service; it instead provides an online database form. The rest of the state is expected to have the service by 2028, even though lawmakers passed a bill last year that allows smaller localities to opt out of the service.
Medical professionals say that while crisis intervention teams are a positive addition because it may result in an influx of referrals of those in need of care rather than jail, it doesn’t address the racial inequities a Black patient may receive within the health care system.
“Given that mental health professionals are not free of racism and overestimate risk for violence among Black patients, these interventions will continue to fail patients who are victimized by both the carceral and mental health systems,” according to a July 2021 article published by the American Psychiatric Association.
“The thought that lives rent-free in my heart and my mind is that Irvo’s blood is on all of our legislators’ hands,” Blanding said. “It was heartbreaking and infuriating at the same time. Seeing his lifeless body laying on the floor, seeing how they treated him as less than a human, and knowing that our legislators had the ability to get the Marcus Alert right.”
‘We did all that protesting … and this is still happening?’
Richmond is one of the Blackest cities in the state, with 45.2% Black people and 44.8% white people. Hugging half of Richmond’s border is Henrico County. A quick drive north or southeast of Richmond will bring you to a community that is 56.1% white and 30.9% Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By comparison, the county’s police force is 84.6% white, 8.6% Black, 4.3% Hispanic, 1.2% Asian, and less than 1% Native American and Pacific Islander, according to the department’s personnel statistics.
Allen-Charles Chipman was devastated to hear that his friend Otieno was the victim of police brutality. His devastation turned to frustration when he realized his friend’s death was reminiscent of Peters.
“We did all that protesting and … this is still happening?” he told Capital B.
Six years before Otieno was killed at the hands of seven Henrico County sheriff’s deputies with crisis intervention team training and three Central State Hospital employees, he was putting a pen to paper writing hip-hop songs. Otieno creatively delved into his feelings about his faith, family, and his mental health.
Chipman was seven years older than Otieno when they met at bible study but was impressed with how committed he was to his music, family, and understanding himself.
Family was a “really huge part of his grind and his work ethic” and “he really wanted to help make a better life for his family and his community in Kenya; he wanted to make an impact,” Chipman, 35, said.
Otieno went by the rap name “Young Vo” — a derivative of his first name Irvo — and was extremely focused about his hip-hop career; he recorded and released two to three songs per month on SoundCloud with a consistent theme about having a responsibility to provide a better life for his family, Chipman said.
In Otieno’s recent music, Chipman said, you could tell he became more vulnerable. “In music, that helped them kind of look outside and say that, ‘Hey, I think I have something that’s a little deeper than just, you know, sadness.’ And so his recognition of the mental health crisis he had kind of emerged a little bit later,” he said.
It’s not clear what Otieno was diagnosed with.
Otieno was arrested by Henrico police on March 3 as a potential suspect in a burglary. Based on the officers’ interactions with Otieno, they placed him under an emergency custody order and took him to a nearby hospital for further evaluation. While there, Otieno allegedly assaulted three of the officers who arrested and transported him to the Warrant Services Unit at Henrico County Jail West.
In three videos provided by the Dinwiddie County commonwealth attorney’s office, Otieno was unclothed in a holding cell pacing back and forth and occasionally hitting the cinder block walls as seven officers stood outside the single-windowed door with a mail slot. Six minutes into the 48 minutes of surveillance footage, Otieno was held down by seven officers, including one attempting to put pants on him and another whose hand is seen covered with a black glove balled into a fist and swinging as Otieno is forced to the floor and out of camera range.
Otieno was hog-tied and carried out by the group of officers to a white van. For 28 minutes, Otieno was unable to move as the officers failed to get Otieno into the van from the side and back doors. They ultimately threw his body like cattle into the backseat of an SUV that drove off to Central State Hospital in Dinwiddie County, where he was again jumped by the seven officers plus three hospital employees and died.
A grand jury indicted all 10 of the defendants with second-degree murder. They all posted bail and are expected back in court on various dates between April 26 and May 10, according to online criminal court records.
Harris, 28, doesn’t see the swift indictments as a form of progress that the community needs.
“Unfortunately, the whole system is part of the problem, and so that’s not going to reform that behavior or really stop anyone else from doing it,” she said. Harris does understand that if going through the criminal legal system will give Otieno’s family peace, she respects it.
Otieno’s funeral will be on Wednesday at First Baptist Church in North Chesterfield, Virginia.
The Rev. Al Sharpton will deliver the eulogy, and civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is one of the attorneys representing Otieno’s family, will deliver a national call to action. Crump previously represented Peters’ family, but they parted ways in April 2019.
Following Peters’ death, Blanding and Chipman ran for elected positions in an effort to make changes to the system by doing it themselves.
“We cannot keep begging our oppressors to be our saviors because they’re not going to be,” Blanding said regarding her decision to run for office.
Neither Blanding nor Chipman, who ran for a seat on Richmond’s City Council, was victorious.
Nearly five years after Peters’ death, the family hasn’t seen the accountability or justice they want. Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorneys Colette W. McEachin and Michael N. Herring, in 2020 and 2018, respectively, cleared Nyantakyi of any wrongdoing.
Nonetheless, Blanding said she will continue to fight for justice for her brothers and the other Black people whose names will forever be connected to a hashtag or rallying cry.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated where Otieno died. He died in Dinwiddie County, Virginia.