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Coalition Continues Call for Naming Officers in Osagie Shooting as State College Council Passes Resolution on Police Reforms

by on June 23, 2020 11:37 PM

State College Borough Council on Tuesday night unanimously passed a resolution committing to a series of police department and racial equality reforms.

Hours earlier, members of the 3/20 Coalition, whose demands were instrumental in the drafting of the resolution, stood outside the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte to call attention to several issues council would not address: the naming of the State College officers involved in last year's fatal police shooting of Osaze Osagie and the firing of the officer who shot him, as well as financial compensation for the Osagie family. 

The resolution, co-written with Councilwoman Deanna Behring, was introduced by Councilman Dan Murphy a week ago, soon after coalition members delivered a list of 10 demands to borough leaders for changes to local policing and the service of mental health warrants. It addresses eight of the coalition's 10 demands. 

"We are encouraged by their quick response," 3/20 Coalition Secretary Melanie Morrison said. "We are encouraged by the depth of that resolution and that he felt compelled to write it. We hope that the work that comes out of it holds true. But those two demands that were left out of the resolution are the ones we are really concerned about today."

The 3/20 Coalition was formed after the death of Osagie, a 29-year-old black man shot and killed by State College police who had come to his apartment to serve a mental health warrant on March 20, 2019. The three officers involved were cleared of wrongdoing by Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna following an investigation by Pennsylvania State Police and an internal department review, all of which found the officer who fired the shots was in a life-or-death situation when Osagie charged at him with a knife in a narrow hallway and another officer's Taser failed.

The state police Heritage Affairs Section found no racial bias was involved in the shooting.

Coalition members have rejected those findings and for more than a year have been making calls for change. Amid the rising Black Lives Matter protests nationally and locally in recent weeks, their demands — many of which have been made over the past year — have received renewed attention.

While moving forward with commitments on most of the demands, borough council's resolution states that it cannot address the remaining two because of ongoing litigation. The Osagies filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the State College Police Department last fall.

Morrison said that the coalition consulted with attorneys who informed them that because the investigations have concluded, there is nothing prohibiting the release of the officers' names.

"So there is no reason for this hold up of information, which should be public knowledge because these are officers serving in a professional capacity as public servants," Morrison said. "This should fall under the public right to know if you have members of your community who do feel unsafe. And we do. We have people who are scared to call the police because Osaze’s killer could be the one who responds."

Tuesday's protest was held outside the courthouse because of its proximity to Cantorna's office in the annex, where last year he announced the investigative report on Osagie's death.

"Certainly Bernie Cantorna would have the push to have theses names released," Morrison said. "When he came out with that report, we sat in the Courthouse Annex. He talked with us and he said that he would not release the names of the officers involved. So we’re here once again calling on Bernie to help us in getting these officers names released to the public."

Coalition member Leslie Laing said later during the borough council meeting that the importance of knowing the officers' names outweighs any harassment they may receive.

"You don’t want to subject these officers to unfairly having harassment. But we don’t want to unfairly subject people of color to death because you come to our homes when we ask for help and you shoot us rather than transport us to the hospital," she said. "I need you to have a value check. Our lives are worth more than the harassment they may get for a short period of time. If you want healing in the community there needs to be truth and reconciliation to do it. Fifteen months later I would like borough council or the police department or the district attorney to provide the law or policy where it says you cannot name those accused of a wrongful death."

"The time for talking a lot is over"

The resolution approved on Tuesday does not establish any policy. Councilman Evan Myers noted it codifies nothing and many items will need to be brought forward as ordinances. But council members most vocally in support of the measures — Murphy, Myers, Behring and President Jesse Barlow — said it needed to be more forceful and actionable than a typical resolution as it sets council on a path to addressing those eight coalition demands.

Among them is the creation of a community oversight board "to address discrimination, bias, and racism in our local government and police." The original draft of the resolution described it as an "advisory board" but Murphy and Councilman Evan Myers said the body needs to have more than advisory input.

"My feeling is this should be stronger and have more force than just allowing a group to give opinions in a formal way, but actually be able to have the force of policy," Myers said.

Murphy added that research has shown oversight boards are most effective when they can independently investigate citizen complaints,  recommend discipline, focus on trends in police misconduct and recommend changes in policing policy, among other roles.

Councilman Peter Marshall said "oversight" needs to be better defined.

"Would they actually be directing the police department or directing the manager? What would they be doing? I don’t think we need a level of government that’s going to be directing the police department or the manager or the council," he said.

The resolution also was amended to call for any financial resources required for establishing the oversight board to come from current police department funds.

Marshall, who was State College's Borough Manager from 1986 to 2003, said a substantial cut in funding would result in officer layoffs and reduced services.

"I don’t have a problem with taking some money from the police department budget, but if we’re talking about a lot of money then I do have a problem, because the police department is at the same level now as it was when I was the manager," he said. "So it hasn’t been growing. They have four shifts they have to fund to do 24-hour policing."

Councilwoman Janet Engeman said she felt it is a budget matter and not one for a resolution. She added that the resolution's goal of establishing the oversight board by Aug. 1 seems "unrealistic."

Here's a look at the other demands and how the resolution addresses them

• Divestment of firearms during the service of mental health checks and mental health warrants.

Council's resolution cites the ongoing work of the Task Force on Mental Health Crisis Services, formed jointly by the borough and Centre County in response to Osagie's death. The resolution commits to a series of special meetings and action on recommendations within three months of the submission of the task force's report, which is expected to be delivered in November.

• Revision to standard operating procedures to emphasize de-escalation strategies to be used during engagement, and consequences for failure to use those strategies.

The resolution notes the State College Police Department exceeds state and national training standards and that it emphasizes de-escalation. It calls for requiring de-escalation training on an annual basis and a special working session of council to be held at 7 p.m. Monday to begin discussing current policies and training, future training needs and recommendations by the Police Executive Research Forum and the borough's current work with National League of Cities' Race, Equity and Leadership initiative, which was contracted last year following Osagie's death.

• Public access to officer misconduct information and disciplinary history when death results.

Council recognized that such information is mostly not publicly released under state law, except in cases resulting in demotion or discharge. The resolution, however, commits to making policing data public where possible and easily accessible on the borough website. 

It also includes a commitment to hold a hearing for public comment prior to negotiation of the next police contract in late 2021.

• Public release of protocol and body camera footage for officers accused of misuse of force and race-based policing.

Current policy allows for the release of body cam footage under provisions of the state Right to Know law, but council plans to review the details of that agreement in the next six months. A report on body cam implementation within the department is expected at council's July 6 meeting.

• A ban on the use of knee-holds and chokeholds.

State College police already prohibit the use of such holds, but council committed to developing an ordinance that codifies that ban for police and private security companies within the borough. The resolution also states the department has already adopted the use of force policies outlined Campaign Zero’s 8 Can't Wait Campaign.

• Transparency and the release of policing data regarding policing with special attention to race and ethnicity.

That information was available through the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania website until 2019, and the borough has recently registered with the FBI's National Use-of-Force Data Collection program. Council committed to ensuring that data, along with the SCPD policy and procedures manual, is accessible through the borough website.

• A reallocation of funding away from the State College Police Department to programs that address root causes of suffering and violence, and provide benefit to public well-being and safety.

During the next budget planning cycle, council intends to discuss the "distribution of funds across the police department, community programming, commitments supporting mental health and housing, and community rebuilding in the wake of COVID-19," according to the resolution.

Council also will prioritize the hiring of a borough equity officer; add a standing section to each business meeting agenda specifically focused on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives; and voice its support for a series of police reform efforts at the state level proposed by the Pennsylvania Black Legislative Caucus.

Behring called the resolution "a beginning, not an end" and said she was in favor of it because it is action-oriented with defined timelines.

Marshall said that he is "a huge supporter of the current movement against police injustice and brutality toward people of color. It is long overdue." He added that that during his time as borough manager he and former Police Chief Tom King worked to build a "culture of excellence," through community-oriented policing that had no tolerance for officer misconduct, a culture he believes carries through today.

"The State College Police Department is good, and it can be made even better by some of the ideas that are being put forth," he said.

Barlow commended the professionalism of the State College Police Department, but said work needs to be done, recalling his dismay last year after Osagie's death that few of the recommendations by the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color, which completed its report in 2016, had been implemented. 

"The efforts that have gotten us to this point are praiseworthy, however they should not make us complacent. They should not make us self-satisfied," he said. "Given the growing diversity of this community and the issue surrounding policing and communities of color, it’s the responsibility of this council to commit to the measures recommended in this resolution."

Myers said for all the discussions council has had since Osagie's death, it's time to take action. 

"During the last year we’ve taken a little bit of action and we’ve talked a lot," Myers said. "The time for talking a lot is over. The time now is to act. Even though this is far from perfect, we need to pass this resolution and continue to listen, to learn and to take action. More action will be needed, that is for sure. There’s a lot of work left to be done, but this is a start."

Despite not addressing the naming of the officers or compensating the Osagie family, Morrison said the 3/20 Coalition is still pleased to see council moving forward.

"We are very hopeful. We’re ready to work with them," she said. "We have definitely been ready to work with them for the past 15 months, so this is certainly a step in the right direction and we want to make sure we are putting the pressure where the pressure needs to be in getting work done to keep our community safe."

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