Borough Council, Residents Continue to Discuss Concerns After Fatal Shooting of Osaze Osagie
There were no protests this week, but community concerns surrounding the fatal police shooting of Osaze Osagie were again at the forefront of State College Borough Council's meeting on Monday night.
"Last week when protestors came into this meeting I said that we’d have to go down this road together," Borough Council President Evan Myers said. "It’s the only way we can solve it. These struggles and issues are hard to talk about, but they need to be done."
At the start of last week's council work session, following remarks by Myers about the shooting, a group of demonstrators entered chambers and provided a list of demands seeking "justice for Osaze Osagie," a 29-year-old, African-American borough resident who on March 20 was shot and killed by a State College police officer. Police went to Osagie's Old Boalsburg Road apartment to serve a mental health warrant and Osagie allegedly "came after" them with a knife, according to a state police search warrant.
Myers has opened three consecutive meetings by discussing the case. On Monday, he again said it's important for Pennsylvania State Police, which has led the outside investigation, and the Centre County District Attorney's office to be transparent and provide frequent updates. Last week, DA Bernie Cantorna said investigators have completed interviews and he is now awaiting the results of evidence testing and analysis.
Council, borough staff and Mayor Don Hahn have been meeting with various community groups dedicated to issues of both race and mental health, Myers said. He added that the borough is organizing two groups to closely examine the response to individuals with mental illness and the relationship between borough police and communities of color.
One group will focus specifically on "mental health services and systems, including police response," Myers said. The other will build on the work of 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.
Myers said State College will also work closely with Penn State student, administrative and faculty leaders and is evaluating the possible creation of an office of equity and inclusion for all borough government departments and operations.
"In addition to many other responsibilities, an office of equity and inclusion can help the borough achieve its goal of having a diverse workforce including a diverse police department," said Myers, who added that council will hold public work sessions dedicated to the issues of concern.
Addressing issues of "racism in our community" and mental health and finding what actions need to be taken are steps needed to "begin to heal," Myers said.
During the public comment period, several community members discussed steps that need to be taken and their own experiences with racism in State College and Centre County.
Resident Jennifer Black, who has spent much of her career studying police misconduct and racialized policing, said she has "been subjected to demoralizing and unnecessary harassment," by State College and Penn State police. Many of those experiences occurred, she said, when she was between the ages of 15 and 30 and was stopped for questioning while walking or in a vehicle.
"These routine indignities happened most frequently when I traveled in groups of four black people or more, which fits a national pattern of how groups of young black people are patrolled and policed," she said. "Speaking to young black people in State College today, including university students, it’s obvious the issues that plagued my generation continue to plague this current one."
Black said many of the steps that have been discussed — including transparency, "token recruitment," mandatory bias training, restructuring how bias is reported and tracked, requiring body cameras and task forces— are necessary, but not enough.
"It’s my belief the only thing that can work to prevent another tragic and grave event such as the one that took place on March 20 are repercussions," she said. "Like any citizen, police must be held accountable for their actions, not be permitted to kill people with impunity… I urge the members of this council to do everything in their power to see police are held to high standards of decency… and when they behave outside those standards they, like any member of this community, should be held accountable and punished.
"Short of this commitment we are wasting our time, our breath, our resources and essentially ensuring the likelihood of future tragedies."
Melanie Morrison, a Millheim resident who is locally well-known as singer of Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats, said she has lived in Centre County, including in Bellefonte and State College, since 2002 and during much of that time has been raising two children of color.
"Our experience has consisted of unequal treatment, discrimination and, all too frequently, slurs," Morrison said. "Through it all, time and time again, we have been disappointed by the lack of support and advocacy, or even outright denial of our reality from alleged friends and alliances."
She said that accounts of racism are silenced in an effort to paint the area as progressive and largely free of racism, making people of color more vulnerable.
"This attitude and action have given way to perpetuation of the idea that racism in our area is no more than a convenient excuse rather than the truth," she said. "It has always been here and is a pervasive, underlying constant, worse in places that deny its existence or severity."
Morrison said she fears one of her sons will be harmed because of the color of his skin and that, like many parents of children with color, she frequently talks to them about how to interact with police.
"The shooting death of Osaze at the hands of those sent to protect and serve him has shaken many of us at our core, touching our very real fears and experiences," she said. "The lack of transparency and guarded speech by those in power give us minimal hope for anything remotely resembling justice. So we gather, we organize, we take action and we raise our voices in the hopes that at the very least we are understood that we are not going anywhere."
Liana Glew, a Penn State graduate student, urged the borough to take immediate action on how it responds to mental health crises.
"I want to make an absolutely urgent call to set up a mobile crisis response team made up of mental health professionals," Glew said. "We send ambulances for medical emergencies but we send armed police for mental health emergencies. It criminalizes mental illness and puts people of color in particular danger."