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Borough Council Discusses Next Steps After Osagie Investigation; Community Members Demand Action

by on May 14, 2019 4:52 PM

At a two-hour special work session on Monday night, 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.

District Attorney Bernie Cantorna issued a report last week, following a monthlong outside investigation by Pennsylvania State Police, that concluded State College police officers were justified in their use of force against Osagie. Officers went to the 29-year-old Osagie's apartment on March 20 to serve a 302 mental health warrant. When Osagie brandished a knife and rushed at officers in a narrow hallway, one officer deployed a taser that was ineffective before another fired three shots that struck and killed Osagie, who was African-American and struggled with mental illness for years. 

The investigation found the shooting was not racially motivated and Cantorna said the mental health system failed Osagie, because Pennsylvania law did not allow for intervention before he became a danger to himself and others.

Issues of race, however, were as much a focal point as mental health during comments on Monday night.

"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.

Melanie Morrison, of Millheim, agreed. She said without transparency and accountability there will be little trust in police by people of color. She and others also questioned the truthfulness of the account of the shooting in the DA's report, since no one outside of the police officers involved witnessed it.

Morrison, like several other residents, called for a community oversight and review board for police and said State College has an opportunity to be a model of reform for other communities to study.

"Until the community feels there is true transparency and accountability there will continue to be minimal trust and we will continue to rally and organize," Morrison said. "We will make sure all who come to our town understand the name Happy Valley mocks all of us who are left behind by this unjust system, that not all of our children are safe in these cozy streets."

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 update 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 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.

"What are you going to do right now? If someone calls up and is having a mental health crisis, what’s going to happen?" asked Ellen Freeman. "Are they going to send police again, that really have proved they don’t know how to de-escalate? Or are they going to send a mental health professional that really knows what they’re doing, has experience with different kinds of disabilities? I really don’t want to see this happen again."

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

"I suggest it is not just enough to examine that the procedure was followed, that it was correct…" said Charles Dumas. "One of our young people is dead. It is something we have to figure out, to avoid in the future and make sure we understand why it happened. Please open your hearts and open your minds, and let's open up our rules and laws to figure out how do we make the procedure work for the betterment of our community and the protection of our children, as opposed to the punishment and death of them."

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. 

Murphy made several suggestions, including the possibility of making the task force permanent, setting up a forum on mental health issues in Centre County and establishing benchmarks to measure progress for the use of body cameras by State College police, which he said is expected to begin by Aug. 23.

The big question right now, he said, is "Who do we call for help?"

"I don’t know the answer. I would like to make getting closer to answering that question a top priority for us moving forward," Murphy said.

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. Over the past 30 years she has had many friends of color who have come and gone from the Centre Region.

"Is it that much better elsewhere? Is it that much worse here? I don’t have the answer," she said. "Certainly we have asked the questions before and this makes it clear the questions have not been fully addressed and have not begun to be resolved."

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 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 is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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