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Proposed Borough Council Resolution Looks to Address Police Reform, Racial Equity Measures

by on June 16, 2020 12:05 AM

State College Borough Council members are looking to take some major steps forward in addressing local calls for police and equity reforms.

Councilman Dan Murphy introduced a resolution, drafted with Councilwoman Deanna Behring, at Monday night's meeting that would commit the council to a series of measures "in response to and in solidarity with those demanding racial justice, equity and action."

"I cannot let one more meeting pass without at least attempting to develop a roadmap for how we on the council might begin the process of making meaningful and sustainable change as it relates to creating a safe, equitable and just community," Murphy said.

The resolution — which will be voted on at a special meeting at 6 p.m. on June 23 — builds on a plan Murphy outlined in an open letter last week in response to a list of 10 demands recently presented by the 3/20 Coalition. In addition to Behring and Murphy, Councilman Evan Myers and Council President Jesse Barlow expressed support for the resolution at Monday's meeting. Other council members did not comment.

The resolution will be posted on the borough's website in advance of next week's meeting, Murphy said.

Amid the growing movement of Black Lives Matter protests nationally and in Centre County following the recent killings George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, renewed focus has been placed on the death of Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old black man shot and killed outside his apartment by State College police who had gone there to serve a 302 mental health warrant on March 20, 2019.

The three officers involved were cleared of wrongdoing by the Centre County District Attorney's office following a state police investigation, as well as by 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. But some community members, including the 3/20 Coalition, formed following Osagie's death, have rejected those findings, calling repeatedly over the past year for changes to local policing and the county's mental health system, as well as the identification of the officers involved.

"The State College Borough Council…. should and must respond to demands from the public, join them in shared efforts to move our community forward and set in motion a plan for meaningful and sustainable change in State College," Murphy's resolution states.

The coalition has called for a citizen review board for the police department to address discrimination, bias and racism in local government and police. Murphy's resolution would commit the council to providing the needed resources for such a board's formation and implementation by Aug. 1.

In response to a call for the divestment of guns from the service of mental health checks and 302 warrants, the resolution acknowledge's "the important work of the Task Force on Mental Health Crisis Services," formed jointly by the borough and county following Osagie's death, and commits to a series of special meetings and action on recommendations within three months of the submission of a report.

Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said that the task force's work has twice been delayed — first after the death of its original chair Billie Willits last November and again because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now expected to deliver a final report in November.

Speaking during public hour, 3/20 Coalition member and mental health counselor Geoff Landers-Nolan said the presence of a firearm during a mental health crisis situation is more likely to lead to a lethal outcome.

"The greater the distance, the more points of decision between a person and a gun, the less likely someone is to die in a crisis," he said. "Police should not be primary responders to a mental health crisis. But if they are they must unarm themselves to avoid introducing a lethal element to a situation that does not already contain one."

Murphy's resolution also calls for a special working session of council on June 29 to address current police training, future training needs and the borough's work with the National League of Cities Race Equity and Leadership initiative.

State College contracted with the League of Cities REAL initiative after Osagie's death 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 18-month program got underway in January but a series of trainings originally scheduled for the spring were delayed by the pandemic, Fountaine said.

Public release of protocol and body camera footage for officers accused of misuse of force and race-based policing was another of the coalition's demand, and the resolution called for a report on the implementation of body cams within the State College Police Department at council's July 6 meeting.

Fountaine noted that earlier this month the police department's policy manual was put on the borough's website. It includes protocols and policies for body cameras. Throughout the document, some redactions remain, but Fountaine said many redactions that had been in place, as allowed by state law, for copies made public were rolled back.

The resolution also commits to ensuring policing data, where applicable by law, is made available to the public on the borough website. Two of the coalition's demands call for public access to officer misconduct information and disciplinary history when death results and transparency and the release of data regarding policing with special attention to race and ethnicity.

Fountaine said the department's taser use report is online and staff are working on a "more substantial reporting system to place online data regarding use of force," which should be available by July 31.

SCPD has registered for the FBI's National Use-of-Force Data Collection program and is awaiting approval of its application, Fountaine said. The program documents use of force by law enforcement officers that results in death or bodily injury, as well as when an officer discharges a firearm at or in the direction of a person, regardless of whether death or injury occur.

Fountaine added that the borough and Penn State are reconvening the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color, which completed its report and recommendations in 2016. 

While some recommendations have been implemented — largely related to hiring, training and communication practices — others have not, Fountaine said. The task force will review the recommendations and determine what further updates are needed. A dashboard tracking the status of each recommendation is expected to be on the borough website by the end of June.

Coalition demands also included reallocation of police funding to community programs "that address root causes of suffering and violence, and provide benefit to public well-being and safety."

Murphy's resolution commits council to "discussing our distribution of funds across the police department, community programming, commitments supporting mental health and housing and community rebuilding in the wake of COVID-19 in our next budget planning cycle."

Council also would hold a public hearing prior to negotiation of the next police department contract.

The coalition called for a revision to standard operating procedures to emphasize de-escalation strategies and consequences for officers who fail to use them, as well as a ban on chokeholds and knee holds.

The resolution acknowledges SCPD prohibits chokeholds and knee holds and emphasizes de-escalation training, but calls for council to pass an ordinance to codify those policies.

In a joint statement last week, State College and Penn State police said they have already adopted the use-of-force policies proposed in Campaign Zero’s 8 Can't Wait Campaign.

3/20 Coalition member Leslie Laing said during Monday's meeting that 8 Can't Wait is "insufficient."

"You said you’ve already met those measures," she said. "It did not help Osaze."

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

"I know that many of these efforts are past due and I agree," Murphy said. "I have spent the better part of two and half years on council bumping up against a series of challenges for which the solutions lie outside of our control. That very well might be the case for many of the efforts on which we hope to effect change, but I can no longer let that fear lead me to inaction."

Coalition demands not directly addressed are financial compensation to the Osagie family, the public identification of the officers involved in the shooting and the firing of the officer who shot Osagie.

The Osagie family has a wrongful death lawsuit pending against the State College Police Department.

Community member Chris Potalivo said during public comment that while he appreciates many of the 3/20 Coalition's goals, he disagreed with naming and firing of the officer who shot Osagie, saying that the matter may yet still play out in civil court and that investigations have found no evidence of racial bias in the shooting.

Potalivo, who has spoken publicly about his daughter's struggles with mental illness, said he hoped to see more focus on the mental health care issues raised by the case.

"I truly believe that this fixation on race versus mental health must stop. It should be a balance. Absolutely, race is interwoven in this," Potalivo said. "I’m asking the 3/20 Coalition not to continue this obsessive drive on their demands of having this police officer fired and to continue focusing on how the situation deteriorated that a 302 warrant had to be issued in the first place and assure that a first responder is never faced with a life-or-death situation these officers were faced with.

"I feel this continued demand for the officer’s resignation is diluting their message of so many other topics that they're bringing a positive value to this community."

Laing, who serves on the Task Force on Mental Health Crisis Services, said that in instances of police shootings around the country officers have been identified and that the community deserves to know who was involved.

"They are public servants and wear a badge. We deserve to know who they are," she said. "The decision to shield those officers from accountability and protect your department rather than provide transparency, it is unfair to the victims and community members."

Landers-Nolan added that when it comes to financial compensation, the Osagie family cannot be compensated for the loss of their son, but restitution will provide some accountability from the borough.

"Financial cost is the only measure of accountability left after the state police, district attorney and SCPD itself have all absolved the department and officers involved of all responsibility for committing a homicide," he said. "If our community is truly remorseful for Osagie’s death, only action can show it."

Laing also said that she appreciated Murphy's resolution and recent statements by local police chiefs and government officials, but she questioned why it has taken the borough so long to act on requests, such as the community review board, that the coalition has been making since Osaze's death.

"It took a year to get to this point," she said.

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