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Groups to Hold Virtual Remembrance of Osaze Osagie

by on March 20, 2020 5:00 AM

It was one year ago today that Osaze Osagie was shot and killed during a confrontation with State College police, his death sparking ongoing difficult and sometimes contentious conversations about issues of mental health, race and policing.

A memorial march and celebration planned for this weekend to remember Osagie and shine a light on those issues have been canceled, but organizers say they plan to remember Osagie by posting his image on social media at 2:02 p.m., the time of his death. The events were planned by the 3/20 coalition — a group formed to demand justice for Osagie and changes in the community — along with other groups, including Central PA Standing Up for Racial Justice, the Community Diversity Group, The Forum on Black Affairs, the NAACP State College Chapter, DSA and several local churches.

"Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the need for social distancing, we will not be able to hold a social gathering in his honor. However, we can not let the day go by without honoring his life and death," SURJ member Lorraine Jones wrote in an email. "Please join us and show that Osaze's life matters."

Two scholarships have been established in Osagie's name — one at Penn State to provide resources for students with mental health challenges and other disabilities and the other through Centre Foundation for racially underrepresented students from State College Area School District who have served the community through volunteerism and are transitioning to college with heavy financial needs.

Osagie was a 29-year-old Black man who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Asperger's syndrome and anxiety. His father, Sylvester, contacted police on March 19, 2019 after his son sent messages threatening to harm himself and others. Sylvester was looking for Osaze but was unable to find him. 

A 302 warrant was authorized, allowing police to take Osaze Osagie into custody for involuntary hospitalization. The following day, police were informed Osagie was seen was seen walking toward his Old Boalsburg Road apartment. Three officers went to his basement apartment, one in front of his door and, because of the narrow hallway area, the other two positioned on the stairs. After a brief interaction at the door, according to Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna's report, Osagie charged at them with a knife after saying "shoot me."

The DA's report said one officer deployed his taser, which was ineffective. Another officer, falling back into the wall as he backed away, fired four rounds, three of which struck Osagie. Officers rendered aid until ambulances arrived, but Osagie was pronounced dead at the scene. The entire incident lasted a matter of seconds, Cantorna said.

State College police did not have body cameras at the time, though they have since been implemented.

After an investigation by Pennsylvania State Police, all three officers were cleared of wrongdoing by Cantorna, who called it a "life or death situation." Sgt. William Slaton, commander in the Heritage Affairs Section of the state police Equality and Inclusion Office, said race was not a factor in the shooting.

A subsequent internal review by the State College Police Department also found no wrongdoing.

Osagie's parents announced their intent to sue the police department last fall.

Some community members, like those in the 3/20 coalition, have rejected the conclusions reached by Cantorna and the SCPD review board. They have said police escalated the situation when an officer covered the peephole of Osagie's apartment door before knocking and that officers were overly aggressive in their approach to someone in mental health crisis. Coalition members have questioned the officers accounting of what exactly transpired before the shooting, and say investigators and borough officials did not adequately consider the role of race and implicit bias. 

Looming over all of this have been both nationwide statistics that show Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people, as well as individual stories by local residents of encounters with racism in general within Centre County. 

Where there is no real disagreement is that there are serious issues to be addressed with the mental health system. Cantorna, who said the mental healthy system failed Osagie, noted in Pennsylvania there is no mechanism to compel someone to receive help before they become an imminent danger to themselves or others. Osagie had stopped taking prescribed medication prior to the incident. By many accounts, he was otherwise a peaceful man who was involved with his church community and volunteered with various organizations.

Why police alone are tasked with serving 302 warrants has been another issue raised, with many questioning why mental health professionals are not more directly involved. Sylvester Osagie, who was out looking for his son when police located him, has said he was ready to contact professionals who had worked with Osaze once he was found. But he said, he was not notified by police that Osaze had returned to his apartment.

The borough and Centre County formed a 30-member Task Force on Mental Health Crisis Services, which is evaluating the local system from top to bottom and scheduled to issue a report and recommendations this summer. 

State College has contracted with the National League of Cities' Race Equity and Leadership (REAL) Team to develop a racial equity plan and for services "designed to strengthen local government leaders’ knowledge and capacity to eliminate racial disparities, heal racial divisions and build more equitable communities."

The borough also contracted with International Association of Chiefs of Police for an independent review and assessment of the police department's policies and practicesA group is also expected to update the 2016 report by the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color, reviewing what has been done and what still needs to be implemented.

But while members of the coalition and other groups have said those are worthy efforts, they do not believe they are enough. Some have maintained the officers should have been fired and charged with a crime. They've also called for a community oversight board.

“Osaze’s death shocked and hurt our small community; it left us reeling. We are still grieving his loss and awaiting meaningful reform," Leslie Laing, a member of the Community Diversity Group, NAACP and Mental Health Task Force, said in a news release.

“We recognize and appreciate the changes local leaders have begun to make and the funds they pledged, including the establishment of a mental health task force and the creation of a mobile mental health crisis clinic. However, we also feel it is important to acknowledge that there is still work to do.”

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