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Internal Review Clears State College Officers Involved in Osagie Shooting

by on August 20, 2019 12:05 AM

Three months after District Attorney Bernie Cantorna announced a state police investigation found no wrongdoing by the State College police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Osaze Osagie, an internal police department review has reached the same conclusion.

State College Police Chief John Gardner said at Monday night's borough council meeting that the internal review found the three officers' actions on March 20 "were consistent with department policies and procedures and were consistent with trainings and established practices."

Two of the officers had already been cleared to return to duty. Borough manager Tom Fountaine said the officer who fired the shots that killed Osagie is cleared to return for duty but will remain on administrative leave until medically cleared to do so, per department policy.

None of the officers will be publicly identified, Fountaine said.

Assistant Chief Matthew Wilson led the review and his findings were presented to a conduct and procedures review board chaired by Capt. Chris Fishel. The 24-page report can be viewed here.

Fountaine and Gardner, who said they concurred with the findings, will be available to meet with community members at 3 p.m. Tuesday (Aug. 20) in council chambers at the State College Municipal Building.

Gardner said he has a responsibility to ensure all internal department investigations are conducted thoroughly and professionally. He has refrained from public comment on the matter, he said, to avoid potentially influencing the investigation and outcomes and to remain as impartial as possible.

"With this internal review now closed, I want to take a moment to express my support for the men and women that serve this community as police officers," Gardner said. "The past five months have been very difficult for our officers and our community.  Despite these trying times, the officers of the State College Police Department have continued to show professionalism in the performance of their duties, which has always been a hallmark of this department. The closing of the internal review provides me an opportunity to express my support publicly. 

"I would once again like to offer my thoughts and prayers to the Osagie family, the involved officers, and all those community members impacted by this tragic incident."

Osagie, with whom police had previous interactions, was a 29-year-old African-American man who was diagnosed with autism and who had struggled with schizophrenia and anxiety. His father, Sylvester, contacted police on March 19 for assistance finding him after his son sent text messages threatening to harm himself and others. Sylvester Osagie has said he expected to be contacted by police if they located his son but was not.

According to the internal review report, the responding officers recalled saying they would contact Sylvester Osagie when his son was located but, "[t]here was no conversation regarding advising Mr. Osagie’s father before making direct contact with Mr. Osagie at the apartment." Sylvester Osagie declined to be interviewed for the internal review.

A "302" mental health warrant was issued and on March 20, officers were advised Osagie was seen walking in the direction of his Old Boalsburg Road apartment. Three officers went to the basement apartment, with one outside Osagie's door in the narrow hallway and the others positioned behind him on the steps.

Officer 1 covered the peep hole when he knocked. When Osagie came to the door, he did not allow police inside and when asked if he would step into the hallway he revealed a serrated steak knife in his hand. Officer 1 unholstered his gun and ordered Osagie to drop the knife while backing up as far as he could. Osagie, according to the report, refused to drop the knife and said "shoot me, kill me." 

Osagie stepped out of view momentarily then came charging through the doorway with the knife in his hand. Officer 2 deployed his Taser but it was ineffective, the report concluding that the very small hallway area did not allow sufficient space for the Taser's cartridge probe to spread. Officer 1 then fired four shots in rapid succession, three of which struck Osagie.

"Officer #1 did not recall seeing Officer #2 unholster his Taser nor did he recall hearing it, but he did remember seeing it deploy just before he fired his duty weapon as Mr. Osagie charged them," the internal review report said. "Officer #1 agreed that the Taser deployment and his decision to fire were right on top of each other and nearly simultaneous."

Taser data and dispatch recordings indicated "the officers had approximately 10 seconds time from when the knife was observed until when the Taser and firearm were discharged," the report says. "Furthermore, the total time at the door, to include the time it took for Mr. Osagie to open the door supports the facts that there was no time for extended dialogue or negotiation, as reported by Officer #3, Officer #2 and Officer #1 before force was used."

The report acknowledges concerns raised by community members that the peep hole was covered when Officer 1 knocked on the door, that a mental health professional was not at the scene to make contact, that an officer in plain clothes was not the one to knock on the door, and that officers chose to make contact at that location given the layout of the hallway.

"Many of the concerns brought up by the community are commonly and professionally accepted police tactics," the report says. "Nonetheless, the board should consider this community feedback along with the totality of circumstances and information known by the officers at the time (not 20/20 hindsight) to consider, if anything, tactically different should or even could have been done, before attempting to contact this individual suffering from mental health to the degree that a 302 warrant has been issued."

The report later noted that sworn officers are required to serve warrants and that in cases where a person is a danger to himself or others, police action may be required before the arrival of a crisis worker. It also noted that three different teams of officers had attempted to make contact with Osagie over a 16-hour period.

"Officer #1 attempted to engage Mr. Osagie in conversation and de-escalate him until he showed the knife, and eventually attacked the officers," the report says. "These actions precluded any attempts to serve a warrant, stabilize the scene or await a case worker. The actions of charging the officers created the exigent circumstance."

Cantorna previously described it as "a life-or-death" situation for officers 1 and 2.

After the shooting, the case was immediately turned over to Pennsylvania State Police for investigation. 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 in May that his office found "no racial animus in this incident," and that any officer of any race would have taken the same actions.

The internal review similarly found that the involved officers past contacts and arrests showed no history or prior indication of bias. Wilson also reviewed Officer 1's email, work cell phone text messages and car-to-car instant messaging and found nothing related to racial bias.

Officer 1 has made 1,283 arrests as a State College police officer and has had no complaints of bias against him, the report said.

Mental Health Task Force Moving Forward; Borough Commits to Racial Equity Planning

Since Osagie's death, the borough has been planning initiatives to address community concerns about mental health treatment and racial equality, issues some residents said needed to be addressed regardless of the circumstances of the shooting.

Fountaine said on Monday that a task force on mental health crisis services being brought together by the borough and Centre County is ready to move forward with the appointment of 30 members who will "recommend enhancements to, and identify strengths of, the mental health crisis delivery system in Centre County."

County and borough officials met in late July to finalize the task force, which will examine mental health services, including mobile crisis services; delegate crisis services; involuntary commitment warrant procedures; police officers’ role in responding to mental health calls and 302 warrant procedures; emergency department procedures; and post-emergency department services.

The task force is expected to have its first meeting in September, with the majority of its work anticipated to be completed in the spring. It will include members from county and state mental health and human services, mental health professionals, state and local police, Centre County Correctional Facility, the district attorney's office, Mount Nittany Medical Center, State College Area School District, emergency medical services, the county Crisis Intervention Team, Jana Marie Foundation, an individual receiving mental health services and family member, and at-large members.

Council approved a $50,000 appropriation for part-time staffing to assist with the task force's work. 

"I know there continues to be issues and concerns within our community about mental health and equity, diversity, and inclusion," Fountaine said. "We remain committed to working together to improve our community’s overall response to persons in mental health crisis. The Borough of State College and Centre County are committed to identifying ways to enhance our response to mental health."

The borough also will contract 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 REAL team will provide training and technical assistance for local government leaders, facilitate discussions, connect the borough with peer municipalities for learning opportunities, and guide the community through a process for developing a plan of action, among other services.

Council approved $100,000 for the contract.

"The borough is committed to addressing racial equity and working with persons of color to ensure that this is a community where all our welcome and have equality of access to services," Fountaine said. "We remain committed to addressing issues of race, equity and diversity."

Council also approved $50,000 for a law enforcement consultant to review State College police policies, procedures and training and determine if any changes are recommended. Fountaine said the independent review will be in addition to regular reviews that take place as part of the department's accreditation process "to ensure the borough's standards reflect current practices in law enforcement..."

Money for the three initiatives will come from available unassigned budget funds.

Fountaine said a proposed advisory committee on policies and practices for racial equity is still being planned. The committee will rely on subject matter experts, many of whom are Penn State faculty members that the borough has had difficulty connecting with over the summer. He said the hope is for the advisory committee to begin work after the start of the academic year.



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