State College has declared March 20 as a “Day of Unity” remembering Osaze Osagie, the 29-year-old man who was fatally shot by borough police during a mental health call on that date in 2019.
Mayor Ezra Nanes read a proclamation at Monday’s borough council meeting to recognize the day in remembrance of Osagie and for residents to “pledge ourselves to continue the work together in the spirit of kindness, compassion, empathy, respect and unity.”
Osagie’s parents, Iyun and Sylvester, accepted the proclamation and thanked the borough for recognizing the day.
“It is in the interest of all people, of all persuasions, to know and feel they belong to this town unafraid and free to breathe,” Iyun Osagie said. “Being a visible minority carries a special burden peculiar only to those who wear that skin. We have to make sure we are free— free to live, free to breathe and free to love.
“I believe that love conquers everything and today this show of unity is deeply appreciated. Love never fails.”
Sylvester Osagie informed police he was concerned for his son’s well-being and was unable to find him on March 19, 2019. The following day, after an acquaintance reported seeing Osaze Osagie walking in the direction of his Old Boalsburg Road apartment, three State College police officers responded to serve a mental health warrant.
According to an investigation by Pennsylvania State Police, the situation quickly escalated in the narrow hallway outside Osagie’s apartment. Osagie, who had a history of mental illness, allegedly ignored commands to drop a steak knife he was holding, charged at the officers with the knife and yelled “shoot me.” One officer deployed a Taser that was ineffective and now former officer M. Jordan Pieniazek shot and killed Osagie while retreating backwards.
Each officer was cleared of wrongdoing by District Attorney Bernie Cantorna following the investigation, saying the officers were in a “life-or-death situation, and attempting to back away when Osagie charged at them with the knife. An internal department review also cleared the officers. The state police Heritage Affairs Section concluded no racial bias was involved in the shooting of Osagie, who was Black.
A still-pending civil lawsuit filed in federal court by the Osagie family against the police department and several officers alleges wrongful death, that the shooting was the result of systemic failures in handling mental health issues, that Pieniazek was “unfit for duty,” having just returned to work from rehab, and that a supervising captain ignored warnings that Pieniazek was unstable.
The borough has defended against the lawsuit, saying the shooting was deemed justifiable and that Pieniazek was monitored upon his return to work and showed “no indications” of being unfit for duty.
Those who knew Osagie have said that while he struggled with mental health issues, he was a gentle and community-minded man dedicated to helping others.
A college scholarship endowment in his name, spearheaded by a group of community leaders, recently reached its $100,000 fundraising goal and will award its first scholarship this year to a racially underrepresented high school student in State College with a commitment to community service.
His family also established a memorial scholarship at Penn State to support students with mental health challenges and other disabilities.
“Osaze Osagie suffered from mental health illness, which at times, thanks to the love and support of his family and community, he was able to overcome,” Nanes said while reading the proclamation on Monday. “At other times the difficulties of his illness overtook him.
“The life and struggles of Osaze Osagie, shared by our community, should unite us because it could be any one of us or one of our loved ones facing a crisis. And yet we often stigmatize mental illness, when what we need to do is acknowledge how hard it is to face. It takes the whole of our community to make certain that those afflicted get the help they need.”
Osagie’s death has, indeed, been a catalyst for change in the borough and Centre County. It led to the formation of a Community Oversight Board for the State College Police Department, multiple external reviews of borough policing, the planned addition of a social worker program to the department, the creation of a borough diversity, equity and inclusion department, the revival of the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color, and a joint task force that reviewed and made recommendations for the entire breadth of the county’s mental health crisis services.
The 3/20 Coalition, the advocacy group formed in the wake of Osagie’s death, was a driving force behind a number of those changes. Coalition leader Tierra Williams, who is also a Ferguson Township supervisor said on Monday that the proclamation is another “step toward healing in within our community.”
“The coalition has been adamant and we have been pushing for change,” Williams said. “We appreciate all of the steps the borough has taken with us to make that change and we appreciate this proclamation.”
Nanes also issued proclamations on Monday for International Women’s Day on Tuesday and Transgender Awareness Day of Visibility on March 31.
Councilman Divine Lipscomb said he appreciated all three of the proclamations.
“One of the things we made it our business to run on as a community is bridging those gaps,” Lipscomb said. “All three of [Nanes’] proclamations tonight spoke to the process of healing. So I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that and say thank you and hope that this is a step for us as a community to begin our healing and begin having these conversations.”