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No charges will be filed against the State College police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Osaze Osagie on March 20, Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna announced on Wednesday.
The decision comes following an outside investigation by Pennsylvania State Police, which took over the case immediately after Osagie was shot and killed during a confrontation with three borough officers who had come to his Old Boalsburg Road apartment to serve a mental health warrant. Cantorna’s report concluded that the use of force was justified. One officer first deployed a taser which was ineffective, before another officer fired four shots, three of which struck Osagie.
None of the officers involved were identified.
Cantorna said the entire incident lasted a matter of seconds in close quarters and that officers were attempting to back away when Osagie ran at them with a serrated steak knife. Osagie had made statements about killing himself and others in text messages to his father before he was located by police.
The investigation report was made available to media on Wednesday morning. Following a press conference, Cantorna and state police officials met with community members and answered questions for several hours in the Centre County Courthouse Annex.
“Given the distance between Mr. Osagie and the officers and the speed at which Mr. Osagie was moving, Mr. Osagie had ample opportunity to seriously injure and potentially kill both officers,” said Cantorna, who called it a "life or death" situation. “The time that Officer No. 1 shot, there was no time for any alternative means to stop a potentially deadly attack by Mr. Osagie. At the time of the incident, both officers acted consistently with their training and were justified in the use of force.”
Issues of race and mental health have been at the center of community conversations and tensions surrounding the death of Osagie, a 29-year-old African-American man who was diagnosed with autism and who had struggled with schizophrenia and anxiety.
Osagie's father, Sylvester, contacted police because he was concerned about his son's recent erratic behavior. He said he was looking for Osaze at the same time as police and expected a call if they located him, but that call never came.
Sylvester Osagie and Osaze's mother, Iyunolou, met with Cantorna on Tuesday and expressed “disappointment and confusion,” about the decision not to charge the officer who fired the fatal shots, according to a statement provided by attorneys Kathleen Yurchack and Andrew Shubin.
“Isn’t there something wrong when you send the police to protect your son to take him to the hospital and they send him to the graveyard?” Iyunolou Osagie asked.
Cantorna said the mental health system in Pennsylvania needs changes and failed Osagie, since there is no mechanism to compel someone to receive help until they are danger to themselves or others.
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 his office has been heavily involved from the beginning.
"I can assure you based on everything the district attorney just said, the physical evidence at the scene, there is no perceived racial animus in this incident," said Slaton, who described himself as a member of the NAACP and National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. "Whether the officers were white, black, Hispanic, Asian, any reasonable officer would have reacted in the exact same manner that these officers did.
"As the DA said, the mental health system in this state needs to change so this does not happen again. We don't want this to happen to anyone at all."
Slaton added that state police has held other police officers accountable in Pennsylvania for racial bias incidents.
"If that was the case here we would have no reservations about charging a police officer if they did something wrong," Slaton said. "This is not the case. The mental health system failed this gentleman. He sent messages he was going to harm himself... he was going to kill others. These officers had mere seconds to react."
Cantorna said the investigation found no past incidents of racial basis involving any of the three officers.
Events Leading to the Shooting
According to the investigation report, on the night of March 19, Sylvester Osagie contacted State College police and reported his son was missing from his apartment. He was concerned that Osaze was not taking his medication and shared with police text messages in which Osaze wrote, in part, that his "fast approaching deep sleep will result from a struggle between God and evil." He also wrote that "any poor soul whose life I take today... may God forgive his sins if he has any."
Osaze also ended a telephone call with his father by saying he was going to die.
A 302 warrant was then authorized allowing police to take Osaze Osagie into custody. Osagie had been discharged from a residential rehabilitation program in December but in February his caseworker reported that he "was not doing well mentally," according to the report, and eventually stopped seeking services.
At 1:44 p.m. on March 20, Can Help was notified, and in turn informed police, that Osagie had been seen near the Weis Market on Westerly Parkway and was headed toward his Old Boalsburg Road apartment. Officer No. 1 responded to the call and Officers No. 2 and 3 proceeded to assist.
When they arrived near the apartment a short time later, they parked their cruisers down the street so that they could not be seen. They then proceeded down a flight of stairs to a narrow hallway with Officer No. 1 positioning himself in front of Osagie's apartment door, Officer No. 2 on the first step an Officer No. 3 about halfway up the stairs.
Officer No. 1 covered the peep hole and did not announce the police presence when he knocked "because he did not want to provoke" Osagie.
After police knocked several times, Osagie answered the door with his right hand out of view against the interior wall. He said "no" when Officer No. 1 asked if they could come in or if he would come out into the hall. Osagie then stepped back and revealed a serrated steak knife in his hand, holding it at shoulder level with the blade pointed at the officer, who ordered him multiple times to drop the knife.
In response, Osagie said "shoot me," to which the officer said "no, drop the knife." Officer No. 1 then began to move backwards to put distance between himself and Osagie.
Officer No. 3 told Officer No. 2 to draw his Taser and Osagie ran to his right inside the apartment, while saying "No, I want to die."
Osagie came back into sight seconds later, running through the door with the knife in his hand. Officer No. 2 discharged his taser while Officer No. 1 yelled at Osagie to stop. Osagie was hit by the taser from a distance of about three feet but did not stop.
As the taser was shot, Officer No. 1 was backing up and tripped on the stairs. He saw Osagie turn to the right toward Officer No. 2. Officer No. 1 then fired four rounds from his pistol in quick succession. He ceased firing when he saw Osagie falling and that the attack had stopped.
Officer No. 1 described leaning and falling backward into the wall, about two feet from Osagie, when he fired the shots and did not have time to aim. The officer said he felt he had no alternative and that he was about to be stabbed in the neck by Osagie. Officer No. 2 said that he believed if the other officer had not fired, both would have been dead or seriously injured.
A pathologist concluded that the first shot struck Osagie's left shoulder and exited the front center of his chest. Two shots struck Osagie's mid-back, which the pathologist said was consistent with the officer's description of falling backwards as he was shooting and Osagie turning. The fourth shot missed Osagie and hit the apartment door.
Cantorna said Osagie was running "as fast as a person can run" before he was shot and would have closed the distance with the shooting officer in less than a second. That was also less time than it would have taken the officer who fired the taser to draw his gun.
Officer No. 1 fired the shots in about one second, Cantorna said.
"Mr. Osagie possessed the ability and the means to seriously injure and kill both officers," Cantorna wrote.
A report by state police Corporal Kevin Selverian stated that the officers followed their training for stopping an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury by firing rapidly until the attack stopped.
Cantorna said officers rendered aid to Osagie until ambulances arrived minutes later, but he was pronounced dead at the scene.
The officer who fired the shots is a patrol officer with more than 10 years experience. The other two offers are supervisors who have decades of experience, Cantorna said.
Mental Health Response
Cantorna said an autopsy determined that Osagie did not have any medication in his system at the time of his death, and that by all accounts when Osagie was on his medication he was a kind and peaceful man. Osagie had been hospitalized at least six times for mental health issues and received significant help while he was in the residential treatment program, Cantorna said. In previous encounters, Osagie did not threaten police or health providers
But in recent months on his own his condition began to deteriorate, and Cantorna said there are serious issues that need to be addressed about how to aid those in a mental health crisis.
"We owe it to [the Osagie family and the officers] and the community to look at this seriously and soberly and ask the question, 'what should we be doing?'" he said.
Cantorna noted that under Pennsylvania law Osagie's "health had to deteriorate to the point where he posed a threat of imminent harm" before action could be taken. If there was a mechanism for earlier intervention, Osagie likely would not have reached a point where he posed an immediate risk to himself and others, Cantorna said.
In his report, Cantorna writes that it is beyond the expertise of his office to recommend improvements to local and state mental health procedures. He does, however, recommend creation of a task force to address how to best process mental health warrants and whether changes should be made to Pennsylvania's mental health commitment laws.
State College Borough Council has addressed the shooting at recent meetings and borough officials have spoken at gatherings of multiple community organizations dedicated to issues of both race and mental health.
Council president Evan Myers said 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.
Community members have been vocal at council meetings and elsewhere about the issue. An April 8 council work session was brought to an early end by protestors who staged a lie-in demonstration after making demands, including the firing and arrest of the officers involved. At the following week's meeting, several residents spoke during public comment about their own experiences with racism, calling for police to be held accountable and seeking substantive changes in how racism and issues of mental health are addressed. Residents again voiced concerns at this week's meeting
Osagie's death is believed to be the first fatal shooting by State College police in the department's 103-year history.