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No charges for police after Osagie shooting investigation, questions loom

by on May 16, 2019 9:46 AM

STATE COLLEGE — On May 8 Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna announced that no charges will be filed against the State College police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Osaze Osagie and since then the community continues to mourn and question what should be done to ensure nothing this ever happens again.

The decision came after an outside investigation by Pennsylvania State Police was completed. State police took over the case immediately after Osagie was shot and killed during a confrontation with three borough officers who had come to his Old Boalsburg Road apartment to serve a mental health warrant on March 20.

Since community members have held numerous vigils, borough council meetings have been interrupted by protestors, and the police have held public forums regarding the surrounding issues. The town waited anxiously for the results of the investigation and Cantorna’s decision as to whether or not charges would be filed.

Cantorna’s report concluded that the use of force was justified. That day one officer first deployed a Taser which was ineffective, before another officer fired four shots, three of which struck Osagie.

None of the officers involved were identified.

Cantorna said the entire incident lasted a matter of seconds in close quarters and that officers were attempting to back away when Osagie ran at them with a serrated steak knife. Osagie had made statements about killing himself and others in text messages to his father before he was located by police.

“Given the distance between Mr. Osagie and the officers and the speed at which Mr. Osagie was moving, Mr. Osagie had ample opportunity to seriously injure and potentially kill both officers,” said Cantorna, who called it a "life or death" situation. “The time that Officer No. 1 shot, there was no time for any alternative means to stop a potentially deadly attack by Mr. Osagie. At the time of the incident, both officers acted consistently with their training and were justified in the use of force.”

Issues of race and mental health have been at the center of community conversations and tensions surrounding the death of Osagie, a 29-year-old African-American man who was diagnosed with autism and who had struggled with schizophrenia and anxiety.

Osagie's father, Sylvester, contacted police because he was concerned about his son's recent erratic behavior. He said he was looking for Osaze at the same time as police and expected a call if they located him, but that call never came.

Sylvester Osagie and Osaze's mother, Iyunolou, met with Cantorna the day before the press conference and expressed “disappointment and confusion,” about the decision not to charge the officer who fired the fatal shots, according to a statement provided by attorneys Kathleen Yurchack and Andrew Shubin.

“I thought the police and I were working together to protect my son,” he said to Cantorna, according to the statement. “There is no question that people in this community have been traumatized by the police shooting of our son — people of all races, people whose children have mental health issues, people who can no longer trust the police to protect their children.”

Iyunolu, Osaze Osagie’s mother, asked Cantorna, “Isn’t there something wrong when you send the police to protect your son to take him to the hospital and they send him to the graveyard?”

Cantorna said the mental health system in Pennsylvania needs to be addressed and ultimately failed Osagie, since there is no mechanism to compel someone to receive help until they are danger to themselves or others.

Sgt. William Slaton, commander in the Heritage Affairs Section of the state police Equality and Inclusion Office, which responds hate and bias-related crimes, said his office has been heavily involved from the beginning.

"I can assure you based on everything the district attorney just said, and the physical evidence at the scene, there is no perceived racial animus in this incident," said Slaton, who described himself as a member of the NAACP and National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. "Whether the officers were white, black, Hispanic, Asian, any reasonable officer would have reacted in the exact same manner that these officers did.

"As the DA said, the mental health system in this state needs to change so this does not happen again. We don't want this to happen to anyone at all."

Slaton added that state police has held other police officers accountable in Pennsylvania for racial bias incidents.

"If that was the case here we would have no reservations about charging a police officer if they did something wrong," Slaton said. "This is not the case. The mental health system failed this gentleman. He sent messages he was going to harm himself... he was going to kill others. These officers had mere seconds to react."

Cantorna said the investigation found no past incidents of racial basis involving any of the three officers.

EVENTS LEADING TO THE SHOOTING

According to the investigation report, on the night of March 19, Sylvester Osagie contacted State College police and reported his son was missing from his apartment. He was concerned that Osaze was not taking his medication and shared with police text messages in which Osaze wrote, in part, that his "fast approaching deep sleep will result from a struggle between God and evil." He also wrote that "any poor soul whose life I take today... may God forgive his sins if he has any."

Osaze also ended a telephone call with his father by saying he was going to die.

A 302 warrant was then authorized allowing police to take Osaze Osagie into custody. Osagie had been discharged from a residential rehabilitation program in December but in February his caseworker reported that he "was not doing well mentally," according to the report, and eventually stopped seeking services.

At 1:44 p.m. on March 20, Can Help was notified, and in turn informed police, that Osagie had been seen near the Weis Market on Westerly Parkway and was headed toward his Old Boalsburg Road apartment. Officer No. 1 responded to the call and Officers No. 2 and 3 proceeded to assist.

When they arrived near the apartment a short time later, they parked their cruisers down the street so that they could not be seen. They then proceeded down a flight of stairs to a narrow hallway with Officer No. 1 positioning himself in front of Osagie's apartment door, Officer No. 2 on the first step and Officer No. 3 about halfway up the stairs.

Officer No. 1 covered the peep hole and did not announce the police presence when he knocked "because he did not want to provoke" Osagie.

After police knocked several times, Osagie answered the door with his right hand out of view against the interior wall. He said "no" when Officer No. 1 asked if they could come in or if he would come out into the hall. Osagie then stepped back and revealed a serrated steak knife in his hand, holding it at shoulder level with the blade pointed at the officer, who ordered him multiple times to drop the knife.

In response, Osagie said, "Shoot me," to which the officer said, "No, drop the knife." Officer No. 1 then began to move backward to put distance between himself and Osagie.

Officer No. 3 told Officer No. 2 to draw his Taser and Osagie ran to his right inside the apartment, while saying, "No, I want to die."
Osagie came back into sight seconds later, running through the door with the knife in his hand. Officer No. 2 discharged his Taser while Officer No. 1 yelled at Osagie to stop. Osagie was hit by the Taser from a distance of about three feet but did not stop.

As the Taser was shot, Officer No. 1 was backing up and tripped on the stairs. He saw Osagie turn to the right toward Officer No. 2.

Officer No. 1 then fired four rounds from his pistol in quick succession. He ceased firing when he saw Osagie falling and that the attack had stopped.

Officer No. 1 described leaning and falling backward into the wall, about two feet from Osagie, when he fired the shots and did not have time to aim. The officer said he felt he had no alternative and that he was about to be stabbed in the neck by Osagie. Officer No. 2 said that he believed if the other officer had not fired, both would have been dead or seriously injured.

A pathologist concluded that the first shot struck Osagie's left shoulder and exited the front center of his chest. Two shots struck Osagie's mid-back, which the pathologist said was consistent with the officer's description of falling backwards as he was shooting and Osagie turning. The fourth shot missed Osagie and hit the apartment door.

Cantorna said Osagie was running "as fast as a person can run" before he was shot and would have closed the distance with the shooting officer in less than a second. That was also less time than it would have taken the officer who fired the Taser to draw his gun.
Officer No. 1 fired the shots in about one second, Cantorna said.

"Mr. Osagie possessed the ability and the means to seriously injure and kill both officers," Cantorna wrote.

A report by state police Corporal Kevin Selverian stated that the officers followed their training for stopping an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury by firing rapidly until the attack stopped.

Cantorna said officers rendered aid to Osagie until ambulances arrived minutes later, but he was pronounced dead at the scene.
The officer who fired the shots is a patrol officer with more than 10 years experience. The other two offers are supervisors who have decades of experience, Cantorna said.

MENTAL HEALTH RESPONSE

Cantorna said an autopsy determined that Osagie did not have any medication in his system at the time of his death, and that by all accounts when Osagie was on his medication he was a kind and peaceful man. Osagie had been hospitalized at least six times for mental health issues and received significant help while he was in the residential treatment program, Cantorna said. In previous encounters,

Osagie did not threaten police or health providers.

But in recent months on his own his condition began to deteriorate, and Cantorna said there are serious issues that need to be addressed about how to aid those in a mental health crisis.

"We owe it to (the Osagie family and the officers) and the community to look at this seriously and soberly and ask the question, 'what should we be doing?'" he said.

Cantorna noted that under Pennsylvania law Osagie's "health had to deteriorate to the point where he posed a threat of imminent harm" before action could be taken. If there was a mechanism for earlier intervention, Osagie likely would not have reached a point where he posed an immediate risk to himself and others, Cantorna said.

In his report, Cantorna writes that it is beyond the expertise of his office to recommend improvements to local and state mental health procedures. He does, however, recommend the creation of a task force to address how to best process mental health warrants and whether changes should be made to Pennsylvania's mental health commitment laws.

PROTEST

Shortly after the announcement police redirected traffic and the road was closed between Shortlidge Avenue/Garner Street and South Allen Street, which was also closed to traffic as demonstrators carried signs reading "Stop Killing Us," "Justice 4 Osaze" "#WeAreNot" and "Dead White and Blue."

A car was parked across East College Avenue blocking the travel lane near the Allen Street Gates.

The protesters received an applause from some community members when they finished and drove away with Marvin Gay’s “What’s Going On” playing loudly from a car.

Police rerouted traffic allowing the peaceful demonstration to go on without incident.

“MY SON DID NOT DIE IN VAIN”

Six hours after Cantorna’s announcement that charges would not be filed against the State College police officers involved in her son's shooting death, Iyun Osagie spoke, sometimes through tears, about justice.

Addressing a crowd of demonstrators gathered at the Allen Street Gates, she quoted Martin Luther King's remarks that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," and Isaiah 59:14-19 which speaks of God's justice.

"Osaze's blood was shed in this dear old State College on March 20. But make no mistake, my son did not die in vain," she said. "I stand here and say that I absolutely reject man's justice. The district attorney's idea of justice, based, I suppose, on unjust policies, is untenable."

Iyun Osagie said to the demonstrators demanding justice for her son that it was a wrongful death.

"It is a fact: Police making wrong choices cut off my son's life," she said. "They cannot now turn around and exonerate themselves from their own choices. That is unjust."

Echoing remarks she and Osagie's father made in a statement earlier the day, she said the request for police to help find Osaze and take him to the hospital was "not a request for him to be put in an early grave."

After the demonstrators marched from the gates to the State College Municipal Building, they were joined by the mother of another young black male who was shot and killed by a police.

Michelle Kenney's son, Antwon Rose, was shot in the back and killed by an East Pittsburgh police officer last June. The officer was charged and, two days after Osagie's death, was found not guilty.

"I feel like this is déjà vu for people like me," Kenney said. "We’ve already seen this happen. We’ve already seen this play out and I know what my outcome was. All I can say is don’t give up because I’m not.”

Lorraine Jones, of Central PA Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) said it's critical for people of all races to have "courageous conversations" and to be self-reflective about their views while also teaching their children about interacting with people who are different from them.

"This starts in the home, teaching children how to act with people who are different from them — whether it’s mental illness or a person of color,"Jones said. "If they don’t start talking about issues of race then they are the police officers behind the gun. It’s so important for white families to have those conversations as early as possible with their children." 

Iyun Osagie urged those in attendance to continue making their voices heard.

"I plead with our community to stick together in opposing that which is blatantly wrong," she said. "Not for us to remain in our political corners but to address evil everywhere we encounter it. The moral force of our conviction should tell us that we must act with all that is in us to bring righteous laws and justice into our land."

BOROUGH MEETING

At a two-hour special work session on May 13, State College Borough Council and community members discussed what the next steps should be to address concerns following the conclusion of the investigation into the police shooting of Osaze Osagie.

"Here’s what we’re not going to do. We’re not going to erase race from the events of 3/20/19," said resident Jennifer Black. "We’re not going to pretend that race, race bias, racial injustice, the devaluation of black life, the supremacy and privilege of white people weren’t factors in the determination of justifiable force."

Black was among 15 community members to speak during the meeting and one of several who said that despite Cantorna's findings the officers involved should be fired.

Leslie Liang said community oversight is necessary for improved accountability, as well as increased training and education for borough officers and staff and the hiring of full-time mental health officers who work within the police department.

"I want to ask you what measures will you take to ensure that someone with a known mental illness, suicidal ideation or mental disability is not subject to deadly force?" she said to council "What will you do to move this discussion to the state and federal level? Osaze’s death happened here in State College on your watch… If we can’t hold police accountable, we will hold you accountable for bringing reform."
Liang added that the borough needs an official, permanent advisory board that would provide anti-bias oversight for the police, "more than a working group to explore options."

Borough Manager Tom Fountaine provided an update on the task force announced on April 15 that "will address policing an inclusive and diverse community with a focus on mental health services.”

Fountaine said that group will have representation from local government, racial justice and diversity organizations, various areas of Penn State, State College Area School District, mental health organizations, Centre region police departments, subject matter experts and individual community members. Its work is expected to take nine to 12 months for an initial report, but Fountaine said the task force will not be restricted by an artificial timeframe and will likely issue interim progress reports.

A page on the borough's website will be regularly updated with information related to the shooting and task force and has information for those interested in being part of the task force.

The task force will build on the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color, which brought together more than 30 representatives of the State College and Penn State community and issued a 2016 report and recommendations on the relationship between local law enforcement and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

The new group will review the existing priorities and progress to date while also offering new strategies for policing an inclusive and diverse community."

Councilman Jesse Barlow said he was "astonished at how much we haven’t accomplished yet" from the 2016 report.

The task force also will provide recommendations on: efforts to recruit and retain racial and ethnic minority police officers; additional training for police officers with respect to serving a diverse community effectively; engagement with underrepresented segments of the community with emphasis on the African-American community; and less lethal options provided to police officers.

It will review use of force policies and protocols, including past use of force data, which Fountaine should be available soon; internal affairs policies, protocol and past data; and past enforcement data broken down by race.

Effective forums for the public to report bias, discrimination or other unfair treatment by police will be another focus.

“One of the things we heard consistently in the past seven weeks is that there is not an effective way in this community as it exists right now to report cases of bias,” Fountaine said.

It will also spend "an extensive amount of time," focusing on mental health statutes and leading practices in mental health services.

The feasibility and value of an office of equity and inclusion in the borough will be another major issue, and the task force will be able to determine other areas of focus at it proceeds through its work.

Seria Chatters, who is State College Area School District's director of diversity and inclusivity and spoke in a personal capacity during public comment, said a strong office of equity, one with real power and influence, is needed in the borough.

"State College has needed a director of equity, an office of equity, a community oversight board for some time," she said. "This need should have been born out of the many questions we have been asking for some time. Why was the first person to be tased in State College a black woman? Why was the first person to be shot and killed [by State College police] a black man? Why is Happy Valley only happy for some? Why do we have such a difficult time recruiting and retaining communities of color? It will take more than one person to answer this and it will take more than one person to actually have power.

"In order for real change to take place, the change many of you here say you want to see, equity must be placed at the center and foundation, because for many of us our lives literally depend on it."

Others called for immediate action by the borough to send mental health professionals on calls involving mental health crisis.

Several speakers also said the systems for mental health and for how police use force are broken.

Each member of council offered thoughts on how to move forward.

Dan Murphy, who called for the meeting with a second by Barlow, said he has thought about Osagie every day since the shooting, but recognized that "I benefit from a privilege that allows me to, even though I think about it daily, distract myself with other life things, to escape the realities of being a community member of color, as I am not."

He said he doesn't have the answers, but that council needs to begin doing "the heavy lifting" that communities of colors have shouldered themselves.

Council President Evan Myers said council would continue to work on the issues and hold work sessions, and that the public will have opportunities "to speak and hold us to account."

"As someone said, the council owes the community action, and I believe we’re prepared to do that," Myers said. "The manager has outlined some things but we certainly need to do more than that, much more. This is the first step, to hear you, but this is not the ending of listening to you."

He said he has spoken to many people of color in recent weeks, all of whom have expressed a similar sentiment.

"Every one, every single one, has spoken of ill treatment here in this area, and that is ill treatment that is universal and comes from every part of the community and it puts people in fear," Myers said.

"I know that police work is hard and that our department has worked on both the issues of race and mental health. That shouldn’t be lost either."

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said improvements are needed in both police training and mental health services.

"Clearly there is a disconnect between the training at every level and what happened," Lafer said. "Whether use of force as defined by the training was followed or not —I don’t know, I wasn’t there either. But it shouldn’t have happened. If they’re that trained in dealing with people who need help and de-escalating, then there’s some problem there. I don’t know which steps should have been done differently."

Lafer said that there needs to be a "vast expansion of mental health opportunities," and that will require working at a countywide level.

She noted that the unit at Mount Nittany Medical Center for mental health commitments "is always full," and that the borough can help by finding additional space.

Larger issues of race also must be addressed, Lafer said.

Mayor Don Hahn, who is Asian-American, has lived his entire life in State College and has "not always felt welcome." He recalled his earliest memories of being stared at as a small child, and of being subject to racial harassment while in school. He said he knows the difficulties of being a minority, but said "now more than ever" State College needs to embrace diversity.

"In many ways I understand the people who are saying State College is not a safe place for African-Americans or people of color and they may be putting their resumes into some place that is more diverse," Hahn said. "In my opinion, as a person that has lived here my entire life, I actually think that is the worst thing for State College. I cannot say don’t do it, but the thing is I think now more than ever we need more diversity. If we get less diverse, that is just going to increase our problems."

 Geoff Rushton managing editor of State College.com contributed to this article.

 

 

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