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Osagies Say Questions Remain Around Son's Shooting Death

by on September 09, 2019 11:19 PM

After two reports exonerated the State College police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Osaze Osagie six months ago, his parents say questions surrounding their son's death still remain unanswered.

Iyunolu and Sylvester Osagie addressed State College Borough Council on Monday night, thanking the council and borough staff for actions they've taken since the shooting and expressing their support for police, but casting doubt on some of the conclusions reached by District Attorney Bernie Cantorna after an independent state police investigation and by an internal police department review board.

"Based on the very findings in the two reports, I find it hard to believe we are left with the conclusions arrived at, where police officers are totally exculpated of any wrongdoing," Iyunolu Osagie said. "For instance, some claims in the reports remain unclear, unanswered for me."

Sylvester Osagie said he and his family believe that, despite the investigations' findings, police could have handled the incident differently.

"The circumstances under which Osaze died have a huge impact on me and my family that goes way beyond the loss of a son," he said. "It has threatened to destroy my entire family. How to ensure that my family heals from this is my biggest challenge.

"For a child you love to go through life with a severe disability is heart-wrenching. For that child to die under the circumstances in which Osaze died is a parent’s nightmare. We continue to believe things could have been done differently on that fateful day. If they were, my son would be alive today."

Osaze Osagie was a 29-year-old who was diagnosed with autism and had a history of mental illness. His father contacted police on March 19 for assistance finding him after his son sent text messages suggesting he might harm himself and others. Sylvester Osagie said he was reluctant to contact police because, "Judging from similar encounters with the police around the country, such interactions sometimes portend tragic incidents."

On March 20, police found Osaze Osagie returned to his Old Boalsburg Road apartment. Three officers went to the basement apartment to serve a 302 mental health warrant, with one outside Osagie's door in the narrow hallway and the others positioned behind him on the steps, according to the investigation report.

Osagie refused to allow the officers inside then rushed at them with a knife in his hand saying "shoot me, kill me." One officer deployed a Taser which was ineffective and another nearly simultaneously fired four shots, three of which struck and killed Osagie. It was the first fatal shooting by an officer in the history of the State College Police Department. Cantorna said the investigation found it was "a life-or-death" situation that lasted a matter of seconds.

"For the record, I want it understood it is the word of the officers involved against that of a dead man," Sylvester Osagie said. "I have many questions regarding these reports, but this is not the forum to address these questions."

Sylvester Osagie said he was driving around looking for his son when the shooting happened. Police previously called him twice asking if he'd seen Osaze but did not call him when they found Osaze had returned to his apartment.

"If Osaze was not cooperating with police, it’s not unreasonable for a familiar face to be called in to talk to him and encourage him to cooperate with authorities and be taken to the hospital," he said. "Seeking help when in distress is not an act of criminality. At a minimum I should have been notified when Osaze was found."

State College police had previous interactions with Osaze and that prior knowledge was shared with responding officers. Iyunolu Osagie said that since officers knew of her son's history, the police process for dealing with someone with mental illness "clearly failed."

She also noted that the report stated that police were aware of the apartment layout from a prior incident not involving her son.

"If they were aware, then it was very poor judgment on their part to execute the 302 warrant in the manner in which they did, given the tight space in which they had to work," she said. "Again, the process clearly failed."

Iyunolu Osagie added that she has not received a clear answer on how police investigated whether implicit bias played a role in the shooting. Both the state police investigation and internal review concluded racial bias did not play a role in the shooting and that none of the officers involved had any previous complaints of bias against them.

"The bottom line here is that mistakes were made in the way that these events were handled," Sylvester Osagie said.

The shooting has sparked ongoing conversations and concerns about both mental health treatment and racial bias, issues some residents said needed to be addressed regardless of the circumstances of the shooting. The borough has been working on and appropriated funding for several efforts, including a mental health task force in conjunction with Centre County Government, a racial equity planning initiative, hiring a law enforcement consultant to review State College police policies, procedures and training, and advisory committee on policies and practices for racial equity.

The mental health task force is scheduled to have its first meeting later this month, borough manager Tom Fountaine said. A follow-up community meeting on the internal police department review is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 18 in council chambers at the State College Municipal Building, continuing a discussion Fountaine and Police Chief John Gardner held on Aug. 20.

The Osagies thanked the borough for that continuing work and community members who have supported them and spoken out.

"Yes, as a family, we have been traumatized, but the community as well has been traumatized," Iyunolu Osagie said. "Solutions to this crisis are not just for us, but for our community as a whole. We are thankful once more to the borough for all of the implementation in process."

Both said they have long been supportive of law enforcement, but that a review of State College police policies and the use of lethal force is necessary.

"We have supported police in the past in many ways. We have friends in the police force. We continue to value police lives and respect the difficult work they do," Iyunolu Osagie said. "But we also hope they will value the lives they are hired to protect. Bottom line, if that was the son of one of the police officers who was in distress, I don’t believe any of the responding officers on the scene would have pulled the trigger and claimed to fear for his life.

"I will emphasize that we have never been against the police, but that when things go wrong actions must be boldly addressed, reexamined and accounted for, and that police should work hand-in-hand with the community to build trust by being transparent, a fact glaringly missing in the investigation. It is in everyone’s interest in the community, including the police that we put a high premium on saving lives not taking lives, because the price paid by the victim, the victim’s family and even the police and their families is way too high."

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