In response to fatal shooting, State College addresses mental health, race and policing

Borough Council approved a resolution Monday night convening and funding a joint mental health task force, a racial equity plan and an outside consultant review of police department policies and procedures.

The resolution puts an additional $200,000 toward establishing these goals, with $50,000 allocated to the mental health task force, $100,000 allocated to contract with the National League of Cities on forming a racial equity plan and $50,000 allocated to contract with a law enforcement consultant to review department policies and procedures.

Council voted on these initiatives in response to the March 20 fatal police shooting of Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old African American with a history of mental illness, when borough police officers attempted to serve a mental health warrant. While the Centre County district attorney’s investigative report into shooting determined race was not a factor in the officers’ decision to use lethal force, Osagie’s death has raised concerns in the community about how law enforcement interacts with communities of color and its role in the mental health system.

State College police released its internal review of shooting at Monday’s meeting, clearing the officers of wrongdoing. However, both Borough Manager Tom Fountaine and police Chief John Gardner signaled their commitment to continuing to work with the community with improving the community’s overall response to mental health, and in increasing diversity and inclusion. The three initiatives approved in Monday night’s resolution are part of that response.

Fountaine said the funds come from the unreserved fund balance — money that has not been previously budgeted that might have resulted from better budget performance than expected. The borough is the sole sponsor of the mental health task force, which is a collaboration with Centre County government and will be headed by county administrator Margaret Gray.

The task force’s mission is to recommend “enhancements to, and identify strengths of, the mental health crisis delivery system in Centre County,” Fountaine said. Funding designated by the borough will go toward part-time staffing to oversee the task force’s work, coordinate and schedule meetings, conduct research, take notes and minutes at meetings, draft presentations and draft both a preliminary and final report, he said.

The task force will be comprised of 30 members representing different community perspectives, who will report to Gray and Fountaine. The group will organize over the next two weeks and plans have its first meeting by mid-September, said Fountaine. It anticipates the majority of its work to be completed by spring 2020, Gray said, but funding is approved for 18-24 months.

As part of its work, the task force will examine the county’s mobile crisis services, delegate crisis services, involuntary commitment or “302” warrant procedures, police officers’ role in responding to mental health calls and 302 warrant procedures, emergency department procedures and post-emergency department procedures.

Representatives include:

  • 2 Centre County MH/ID/EI Advisory Board members
  • 1 Centre County Human Services representative
  • 1 Centre County Mental Health Office representative
  • 2 representatives from Mount Nittany Medical Center
  • 1 Centre County District Attorney’s Office representative
  • 1 State College Area School District representative
  • 1 Penn State Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) representative
  • 1 National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Central PA representative
  • 1 Centre Region police department representative
  • 1 Non-Centre Region Police Department representative
  • 1 Pennsylvania State Police representative
  • 1 Centre County Crisis Intervention Team representative
  • 1 Centre County Correctional Facility representative
  • 1 consumer
  • 1 consumer family member
  • 1 private mental health provider
  • 1 Jana Marie Foundation representative
  • 1 Emergency Medical Services representative
  • 9 at-large members

The State College racial equity plan includes a contract with the NLC Race Equity and Leadership team to develop a racial equity plan that focuses on three areas, Fountaine said.

These include providing training and technical assistance to local government leaders to identify racial disparities and use policy and practice to challenge and address them; providing network building opportunities that promote peer-to-peer learning and showcase local government leaders who advance efforts through REAL; and establishing a field of practice that uses new and existing partnerships and shares knowledge and resources across peer institutions and cities that are promoting creative solutions to racial equity challenges in local government.

“It will also help provide the borough with the capacity to advance this work after the specific conclusion of this project so there’s consulting and technical assistance that’s associated with this as well,” Fountaine said.

Councilwoman Catherine Dauler, who has previously participated in REAL training, said State College must figure out how to “operationalize equity” in the community. She spoke highly of the organization and said it was “unfortunate” that the borough hadn’t been able to start training more quickly “but I’m glad we’re doing it now.”

State College will also hire a law enforcement consultant to review police department policies and procedures to determine if any enhancements or changes are needed, Fountaine said. The consultant will also review recommendations developed in the internal review of the use of deadly force and provide guidance on implementing those regulations, he said.

Council President Evan Myers said he supported all three initiatives in the resolution but felt they didn’t go far enough.

“I think we need to put our money where our mouth is,” he said. “I think this really only scratches the surface as to where we need to go from a position of equity, inclusion, fairness, working on bias, internal review of police policies and really overall governmental policies as it relates to this.”

Councilman Dan Murphy said some residents have brought up concerns that “a lot of the systems that we use to look at our policies and procedures involved police policing police.”

Fountaine said the law enforcement consultant would be independent from Centre County and its municipalities, but likely from a law enforcement background.

Expressing disappointment that council’s agenda did not touch on a community advisory and review board on policing, 3/20 Coalition member Melanie Morrison urged the board to refocus its efforts on police accountability. The 3/20 Coalition is a group that formed after the shooting of Osagie to demand police accountability and improved relations between police and communities of color.

“The community has no means of recourse in cases of harassment or misconduct by the police,” she said. “We must have some action regarding the progress toward the actual ability to hold police accountable beyond body cams which have only the appearance of transparency but are not accessible to the community.”

On the subject of the mental health task force, she said race and policing should not be forgotten.

“We have noticed the constant push to shift focus toward mental health and blame toward mental health and away from police accountability by media and officials. This is an intersectional issue. It can be in both places at once,” she said.

Fountaine said the community advisory committee has been postponed since the subject matter experts the borough initially talked with have been difficult to reconnect with. The borough will re-engage those Penn State faculty members at the start of the academic year and hopes to get the effort off the ground in about one-to-two months, he said.

Councilman Jesse Barlow recalled some of the stories people told of the challenges they’ve faced dealing with the county’s mental health system at the commissioners’ June 27 special meeting on mental health.

“That (mental health) task force has a very difficult task ahead of it. There’s a lot for them to do,” he said.