Task Forces, Body Cams, Internal Review: Where State College Stands Following Osagie Shooting Death
By Jim Davidson and Geoff Rushton
State College Borough Council on Monday night discussed its long-term course of action in response to issues raised by the shooting death of Osaze Osagie in March.
Borough Manager Tom Fountaine outlined several initiatives focused on addressing racial and mental health issues as well as police department policy in State College.
Fountaine noted that State College’s practice of not naming police officers implicated in incidents involving the use of force would be reviewed if necessary as part of the borough’s ongoing efforts. Prompted by a question from a community member during public comment, Fountaine said that the individual officer identified as “Officer #1” in District Attorney Bernie Cantorna’s report on Osagie’s death “is not currently working in the State College Police Department pending the conclusion of the investigation.”
Fountaine said that the internal review of the shooting and police conduct “would be wrapped up very very soon,” and that a report will be issued when it concludes.
"The State College Police Department has consistently held itself accountable and has taken action when officers have not acted appropriately," Fountaine said. "I have no reason to expect the conduct of the officers involved in this shooting was inappropriate at this point based on the information provided by the district attorney. But if the review calls out for something different, certainly we would look at that."
Fountaine also confirmed that the police department has, within the last week, deployed body cameras among about half of its officers so far, a month ahead of schedule. The borough now joins Patton Township, Ferguson Township and Spring Township police departments in using body cameras in Centre County. State College had been planning to add body cameras this year since 2018.
The borough has been planning for a new task force since almost immediately after the 29-year-old Osagie was shot and killed during a confrontation with police who came to his apartment to serve a mental health warrant on March 20. After discussions with community members staff decided that a task force on the subject of race in State College “was not widely supported” and that the subject would be addressed through other initiatives.
Council president Evan Myers said said issues of race and policing were already examined by the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color, which issued a report in 2016. Instead of forming a new task force to repeat that work, he said the recommendations of the 2016 report need to be addressed with urgency.
"We already had a task force, and that task force has already made recommendations," Myers said. "So we need to move more quickly, obviously, than we have. The same issues that existed before the shooting exist afterwards… We’re taking a look at the information the task force put forward and prioritizing in view of current events is something we need to do."
Fountaine noted that the Borough was working with several organizations, including the National League of Cities, to form a long-term working group on policies and procedures that would promote inclusion and "evaluate issues related to race and ethnic and cultural backgrounds in the community."
He also said that several community groups including those represented in the 3/20 Coalition are expected to lead small-group and community conversations events. The borough is in the process of identifying facilitators for those events.
The task force “to address the mental health issues that have been raised within the community” is moving forward, Fountaine said, after the Centre County commissioners' community conversation on mental health services on June 27, where about 90 different questions were raised, some of which will be the subject of the task force. Officials had discussed potential membership and preliminary charges for the institution, but held off on moving ahead until after the commissioners' forum.
Fountaine said that staff planned to have a recommendation in front of council and county officials in August to officially charter the 25 to 30-member task force, which will have a "wide range of citizens, service providers, law enforcement" and others.
Councilman David J. Brown began Monday’s discussion with a statement on “concerns and a proposal” regarding the State College Police Department. Brown remarked on the department’s size compared to other municipal entities before saying that its practices “may in part be council’s ultimate responsibility.”
“Of course, our police have been very much in the news recently and have been quite vocally brought to Council’s attention at various meetings,” he said, citing “harsh demands for recrimination” in the wake of Osagie’s death. Brown claimed that there is evidence pointing to a decline in police officer morale.
“As more than one officer has recently expressed, 'Amidst everything, council has, in silence, heard us attacked, has not defended or exonerated us,'” he said. “'And in fact, they mostly seem to have little to no idea of who we (the police officers) are and how and why we do what we do.'”
Brown went on to suggest several immersive, connective programs aimed at educating council members through initiatives like ride-alongs and station tours.
“I don’t think that many of us, in fact, have paid attention to the police department in much detail and depth,” he said.
After Councilman Dan Murphy, citing an American Public Media report from May remarked on the possible inefficacy of the use of tasers in police response situations and training, Councilwoman Theresa Lafer commented on the perceived ambiguity surrounding the circumstances of Osagie’s death.
“I can tell you, based on the report from the district attorney and the state police, that I think our policemen who were there were caught in one of those things which has less to do with their training, which they seem to have fulfilled, and more to do with serendipity, illness, bad luck,” she said.
“I have been silent about it because I do not know exactly what happened, and I only know what everybody else knows,” she said.
Lafer then denounced the harassment of police department members, and called for the improvement of State College’s mental health and police training systems.
“We can’t ignore the angst and fear people of color have brought forward constantly in their testimony before us over the last few months,” Council President Evan Myers said. “Even if this shooting had never occurred, we have to address that.”
Mayor Don Hahn then opened the floor for public comment, allowing Millheim resident Melanie Morrison to take the podium. Morrison noted that many requests submitted by community members, such as the firing or removal of the unnamed officers listed in Cantorna’s report and the establishment of an advisory board with community oversight, have not been met.
“The police cannot continue to police themselves without any accountability,” she said. “We refuse to be comforted by empty promises for change.”
A man who asked not to identify himself then approached the podium.
“Like anything else you have bad people and you have bad police officers, and you have excellent, highly-commendable police officers,” he said after providing background on his time in State College. “But as a whole, you do not have a good police force.”
Council will next convene in a regular meeting session on Aug. 5.