Princess Blanding and her family have endured the pain of losing two relatives experiencing a mental health crisis to police violence within five years. The death of Irvo Otieno in Virginia is reigniting her call to fix mental health and police systems that harm too many Black people. Blanding grew up in the same home as Marcus-David Peters; their families were so close that they were like siblings. Peters, 24, was a high school biology teacher in Tappahannock, Va., who was shot three times in Richmond in 2018. Tragedy struck again for Blanding when her biological brother, Joshua Mathis, was killed by police in January 2022. “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. She’ll never stop challenging whether police officers should interact with individuals having a mental health crisis, she tells Capital B.
Families, activists, and mental health advocates demand more police accountability and tangible solutions to dealing with people in the throes of mental health episodes without them ending in death. Some efforts have been made to address this issue, including eight-hour de-escalation training courses and multi-county mental health emergency phone numbers for the public to call instead of 911, such as the Marcus Alert, named in memory of Peters. The original Marcus Alert legislation included provisions for training and resources for police and the community that may have prevented Otieno’s death. After Peters’ death, Blanding said, “performative politicians” entertained her family’s request to create a behavioral health emergency phone number that would connect callers to a regional crisis call center that will determine what type of intervention is needed. “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,” Blanding said. The bill that eventually passed is a significantly watered-down effort restricted to only five jurisdictions in Virginia. Henrico County, where Otieno was killed, doesn’t have the Marcus Alert three-digit phone service; it provides an online database form. The rest of the state is expected to have the service by 2028, even though lawmakers allow smaller localities to opt out of the service.