Borough Council, Community Members Discuss Fatal Shooting of Osaze Osagie
At the first Borough Council meeting since Osaze Osagie was fatally shot by State College police, borough leaders and community members on Monday night discussed the 29-year-old's death and the issues surrounding it.
Osagie died of multiple gunshot wounds on March 20 after a confrontation with borough police officers who had arrived at his Old Boalsburg Road apartment to serve a mental health warrant. Osagie allegedly "came after" officers with a knife, at which point an officer shot and killed him, according to a state police search warrant.
Osagie was African-American and according to his family had struggled with mental health issues for more than a decade. Issues of race and mental illness have been at the forefront of community conversations about his death, and Borough Council President Evan Myers said those contexts must be acknowledged and addressed.
"It’s not the kind of context that is comfortable, but I think we need to think about it," Myers said. "That context is people of color, and especially young black males, have been on the receiving end of police shootings at a disproportionate rate. That is a fact and the context that this is in."
Myers said State College police do know the need to be sensitive and proactive about understanding issues of both race and mental illness and that officers undergo various trainings related to them as well as meeting with community groups dedicated to issues facing people of color.
"The fact that in our community, where we pay so much attention to doing the right thing, that this happened is a testimony to why we desperately need a conversation on both race and the treatment of people with mental illness," he said. "We need more though. We need action. We need to find peace, but in order to find that peace we really must have justice."
Like other council members, Myers said he does not yet know the facts about what transpired but called for transparency in the outside investigation by Pennsylvania State Police.
Mayor Don Hahn echoed that sentiment.
"My hope is that the report be completed with all deliberate speed, that it be open to public examination and scrutiny and that council will schedule a work session to review it, to ask questions and to follow-up with possible reforms and improvements," Hahn said.
Responding to a resident's question about guaranteeing the investigation report will be made public, Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said the borough will have to rely on state police and the Centre County District Attorney's Office since they are leading the investigation.
"We’re committed to being as transparent as we possibly can based on the information that we receive," he said. "We will do everything we can to make sure a full reporting of that is out. But that investigation is not in our agency so we have to rely on state police to provide that information."
Fountaine also said the borough will soon list online all of the trainings that State College police receive, such as diversity, implicit bias and crisis intervention trainings. He added that police and administration are in the process of determining "what may have changed historically" with Centre County mental health agencies providing support for police response.
"There are some differing opinions about the degree of that support historically, when and if it was available and when it was no longer available for the types of responses we have here," he said.
Osagie's father contacted police on March 19 because he was concerned about his son's recent erratic behavior. In an email to StateCollege.com prior to Monday's borough council meeting, Kathleen Yurchak, one of two attorneys for the Osagie family, said that while Osagie's mother was teaching at a university out of state, his father, Sylvester, who lives within walking distance of his son's apartment, was in State College and actively looking for him.
Yurchak said that on the first day, Sylvester Osagie and police were working together to find his son and on the morning of March 20 he received a call from a detective asking if he had found Osaze. He said he did not and continued driving around to places Osaze might be.
Police did not attempt to contact Sylvester Osagie when they located his son, Yurchak said, adding that he had contact information for mental health professionals who are trained to handle such situations.
“Since I was in communication with the police, I expected them to call me when they found him," Sylvester Osagie said in a statement provided by Yurchak. "Instead, they treated him like a criminal in the manner that they confronted him.”
“State College is a community filled with resources that could have been used to prevent this family’s tragedy," Yurchak added. "And the police had the cell phone number of a father who was nearby searching for his son. No one was called.”
On Monday night, meanwhile, Councilman David Brown, a retired psychiatrist, said he believed Osaze Osagie was in need of greater mental health treatment and that "massive and draconian funding cuts to our mental health safety net" dating back to the 1980s at the federal and state level "directly threaten our region with a poverty of ways and means to respond to and pre-empt perilous mental health crisis situations."
Brown suggested that changes are needed for police training protocols and that leaders need to address "the systemic crisis in our county and our region," caused by insufficient availability of and access to mental health care. He also said that Osagie's life and death "matter profoundly," and that while the community struggles with the meaning and lessons from the circumstances of Osagie's death, he cautioned against "resorting to demagogic or inflammatory rhetoric."
All six borough council members present on Monday offered thoughts Osagie's death, all calling it tragic and some asking for patience while the investigation is completed. Councilwoman Theresa Lafer was absent.
Councilman Jesse Barlow said the effects of Osagie's death "will not end with the investigation, and so our concern shouldn’t either. His death exposed some issues that should concern all of us a great, great deal. I’ve been listening to whoever would talk to me about this and solicited some dialogue from friends of mine who I consider knowledgeable. Much of that has left me very troubled and feeling very ignorant."
He said State College should look at communities that have instituted changes in the wake of police shootings of people of color.
"There’s going to be community work necessary to restore, and in some cases establish, trust for our police and our borough institutions within the African-American community and communities of color in the State College-Penn State area," he said.
On the morning after Osagie's death, Councilman Dan Murphy wrote on Twitter that he was "as heartbroken and angry" over Osagie's death as he was the night before.
"I haven’t been able to shake these feelings in the days since. I sit before you still heartbroken and still angry," he said on Monday.
Murphy said he remains committed to advocating for transparency and information sharing, but that he also understands the complexities of the ongoing investigation.
"I’ve long believed that I’m capable of understanding that black lives matter, just as much as I respect the work of law enforcement who routinely put themselves in situations that I myself am not brave or courageous enough to enter," he said. "I believe we can be partners in moving forward, in critically exploring policy and procedure and doing everything we can to prevent another tragedy in the future.
"I also believe we as a council and as a staff are responsible for doing some of this homework ourselves. We can not lay all of the answers for how we move forward on our neighbors of color, already burdened by the extra work they are called upon to perform everyday. I’ve heard the exhaustion in the conversations I’ve been in over the last couple of weeks, exhaustion only exacerbated by repeated pleas for patience."
During public comment, Gary Abdullah, of Houserville, said Osagie's death "has touched a lot of sore points in our community."
"There are a lot of people who are really angry about how things went down, about what appears to be a process of focusing primarily on the mental health, mental illness aspects of it and not discussing the idea that there may be larger issues to be addressed about Happy Valley," he said.
Addressing race-related issues will take more than just the release of the investigative report, Abdullah said. Osagie's death is not the first police case in State College involving racial concerns, he said, citing 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 fixes for this will not happen in this room," Abdullah said. "We really need to be reaching back and reaching out and drawing upon those resources. We started that process; we’ve got to see it through to its conclusion."
Tabitha Stickel, of State College, agreed that while it is important to understand what happened in this specific case and to address mental health-related issues in policing, "to dismiss it as simply this one incident is to fail to understand the community’s reaction to Osaze’s death."
"There are things we should be doing as a community with this council at the forefront that are not happening," she said. "To say 'wait for the report' is to ask us to pay attention to symptoms of a much larger problem instead of targeting the much larger problem itself.
Abdullah said that council alone can't fix the problems, but must do the best that it can.
"I hope we’re ready to get out of our comfort zones and do more as leaders of this community," Abdullah said.