Osagies Announce Intent to Sue State College Police Over Son's Death
Lawyers representing the parents of Osaze Osagie said on Thursday they intend to file a lawsuit against the State College Police Department and the officers involved in the fatal shooting of the 29-year-old borough man in March.
"The mental health processes in place failed our son," Osagie's father, Sylvester, said in a statement provided to reporters after a press conference at the State College Municipal Building. "The police procedures also failed our son. And the officers who responded to our son's apartment failed him as well. We are bringing this case to make sure Osaze is the last person to die under such circumstances."
Sylvester and Iyun Osagie were present but did not speak at the press conference.
Attorney Andrew Shubin — who is representing the family along with Kathleen Yurchak and New York-based Andrew Celli — said the notice of claim was delivered to Borough Manager Tom Fountaine and solicitor Terry Williams on Thursday, nearly six months to the day after Osagie's death. The notice alleges that the officers' "actions constituted willful misconduct" and that they are liable for wrongful death, assault, battery and violation of civil rights.
Celli, who said his career as a government lawyer and in private practice has focused on "cases involving systemic failures in policing," said the action is the first step in what the Osagies described when they addressed State College Borough Council on Sept. 9: “an effort to uncover the whole truth about what happened to their son Osaze on March 20 and why, and to hold the system accountable for its failures and for his tragic death.”
Celli said they will seek police policy and training changes, compensation for the Osagie family, potential personnel consequences "and a genuine effort to heal this community and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past."
Osagie had a history of mental illness and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, anxiety and autism. On March 19, Sylvester Osagie contacted police for help finding his son, saying Osaze had been acting erratically and was likely off his medication. In applying for a 302 mental health warrant with the assistance of a State College officer, Sylvester Osagie said his son sent a long and incoherent text message threatening to kill himself and hurt others.
On March 20, police found Osaze Osagie had returned to his Old Boalsburg Road Apartment and three officers responded to serve the warrant, but did not contact Sylvester Osagie, who at the same time was looking for his son. Osaze Osagie, according to reports by Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna on the state police investigation of the shooting and the State College Police Department on its internal review, refused to allow the officers inside his basement apartment, then charged at them with a knife in the narrow hallway outside, ignoring commands to drop the knife. One officer deployed a Taser which was ineffective and almost immediately another officer shot and killed Osagie.
Celli said Osagie "defied all stereotypes of mentally ill people that we have." He was not isolated from his family, who understood his illness and were helping him deal with it, and "had a range of therapists, of prescribers and he’d been in treatment for some time."
The resources that could have saved Osagie, Celli said, including his parents, Centre County Can Help and counselors, were "not scarce and they were not difficult to access," but were not called when police went to the apartment.
"This case is more than a tragedy. It is a profound failure," Celli said. "Our work on behalf of the family is to gather the facts — there are far too many unanswered questions — and to independently review them and analyze them and advocate for change."
Andy Hoover, communications director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which is not formally involved in the case, said that officers' actions — such as covering the peep hole when they knocked on the door, not bringing a mental health professional and not taking into account information about Osagie's state of mind — call into question the training they received.
"According to the State College Police Department's internal review, the officers on the scene followed their training," Hoover said. "If that’s true, then their training has to change. We understand police have a difficult job. They are often encountering people at their most difficult moments, but that is not an excuse for killing someone when there are alternative ways to approach a situation that increase the likelihood that everyone will still be alive at the end of the encounter."
Shubin and Celli said they do not wholly reject Cantorna's report and the department's internal review report, both of which exonerated the officers involved, but said they paint an incomplete picture.
"We believe the reports authored by the Centre County District Attorney and the State College Police Department entirely miss the central and critical issues that worry our community," Shubin said. "How did it happen that the police officers who responded to a mental health crisis knew so little about the circumstances that they were operating in that they violated the most basic, fundamental crisis de-escalation techniques?
"They had an opportunity to reflect on what went wrong here and what can be done to make us safer and to formulate better responses... They had that opportunity and they did not take it. I think that’s to the detriment of our community and it really prevents them from learning."
Grace Telesco, a former commanding officer of the NYPD Police Academy Behavioral Science Unit who is working with the family, is an expert on crisis intervention and said in a statement that Osagie's death was the result of a series of failures by police, who "unnecessarily escalated the situation."
Former Centre County Public Defender Richard Settgast said in a statement that several police departments nationwide have directives for handling a situation involving a mental health crisis and common to all of them is for officers not to put themselves in a position that requires "taking unnecessary or overly aggressive actions and to communicate in a non-aggressive manner..."
"There is no policy I could find in my research that supports the officers' behavior in making initial contact with Mr. Osagie," Settgast said.
Celli said the legal team's plans include meeting with department personnel, borough policymakers and the wide-ranging task force on mental health services created by the borough and Centre County, which the Osagies thanked borough council for earlier this month and again on Thursday through their attorneys.
"I think the task force has a really important role here," Celli said. "We are calling on the task force to interact with us closely and to collaborate and be subject to challenging questioning as well."
Iyun and Sylvester Osagie listen as their attorney discusses their intent to file a lawsuit against the State College Police Department, Sept. 19, 2019 in State College. Photo by Geoff Rushton/StateCollege.com
While the attorneys' remarks largely focused on the mental health aspect of the case, Shubin said the legal team's investigation also would examine whether race played any role, another issue that has been a central point of concern and discussion among some community members. The state police investigation and State College police review both concluded racial bias was not a factor.
Assistant Borough Manager Tom King noted that in addition to providing an initial $50,000 to the mental health task force, the borough council has committed $100,000 in funding to work with the National League of Cities' Race Equity and Leadership program, which will collaborate with community members, police and borough government to develop a racial equity plan. Another $50,000 has been allocated to hire outside consultants who will evaluate police policies and practices and make recommendations.
Additionally, King said, the borough is putting together a group to update the 2016 report by the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color, reviewing what has been done what still needs to be implemented. The borough also is planning to work with academic experts from Penn State on policies and best practices.
"Those efforts are important and ought to be applauded," Shubin said. "For these efforts to be a success it’s going to take transparency and cooperation of the police department. If there is hesitation on their part or they are not cooperating, then there needs to be accountability. The success of these efforts depends on transparency and the ability of the people who are the experts and legislators who will be looking at this to have access to information which the community has not been provided."
Celli said that before the legal team can make recommendations on changes, they need a full understanding of what happened, how officers are trained and how that training was implemented in this and other cases.
"My view is [the DA and State College police] reports are incomplete at best. Our job here is to get the full answers," he said. "We need to get to the truth, before we can come to solutions."