State College

A ‘parent’s worst nightmare.’ Family, ACLU want answers after State College shooting

Mental health warrant led to officer-involved shooting, police say

State College police Chief John Gardner informs the public about the officer-involved shooting that occurred on March 20, 2019 at Marvin Gardens Apartments.
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State College police Chief John Gardner informs the public about the officer-involved shooting that occurred on March 20, 2019 at Marvin Gardens Apartments.

The parents of the State College man shot and killed during a March 20 confrontation with borough police are advocating for changes in law enforcement policy, the family’s attorneys said Wednesday.

Sylvester and Iyunolu Osagie are struggling to understand how their request for police assistance ended in the death of their son, Osaze Osagie, 29, attorneys Andrew Shubin and Kathleen Yurchak said in a press release. That request for help will “forever haunt” the family, Yurchak said.

Three State College police officers were attempting to serve a mental health warrant on Osaze Osagie, who was diagnosed with autism, when one officer opened fire, borough police officials have said.

Sylvester Osagie had reported his son missing and acting erratically, similar to when he was off his medication, the day before the shooting in an apartment on Old Boalsburg Road, according to a search warrant filed by state police at Rockview.

When borough officers arrived at the home, Osaze Osagie ignored several verbal commands, brandished a knife and “came after the officers,” state police said in the filing.

“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” Shubin said in the release Wednesday. “They went to the police for help and, instead, their son died from police gunfire.”

Attorney Andrew Shubin walks into the courthouse for the second preliminary hearing Friday, March, 23, 2018 at the Centre County Courthouse. Centre Daily Times, file

Four spent 9 mm casings, a stun gun, bullet fragments and a knife were among the items seized from the apartment in the Marvin Gardens complex, according to the search warrant.

Centre County Coroner Scott Sayers ruled Osaze Osagie’s death a homicide and said he died of multiple gunshot wounds. Sayers did not specify the number or location of the wounds.

Borough police Chief John Gardner said the involved officers were placed on administrative leave — in line with borough police policy — pending the outcome of an ongoing investigation by state police.

District Attorney Bernie Cantora has vowed the investigation will be thorough, complete and independent. He met with Shubin and Yurchak on Tuesday to discuss the review, which includes an assessment of the role that mental health and race may have played in the shooting, according to the release.

It wasn’t immediately clear what changes in law enforcement policy the Osagie family would like to see.

“As the father of an autistic, African-American son — and as an academic — I am acutely aware of the staggering number of tragic police encounters with those experiencing mental health issues and person of color,” Sylvester Osagie, a Penn State faculty member, said in the release. “Like any father, I felt I needed to do everything possible to make sure that my son was safe.”

Iyunolu Osagie, a faculty member at Oregon State University, said the family had previous “positive” interactions with former borough police Chief Tom King and the police department, but still wants answers about how, and why, their son died.

“What happened to our son is even more difficult to fathom given how accepting the community has been of our family and Osaze, in particular, since we moved to State College in 1992,” she said in the release.

State College borough officials have referred press questions to the DA’s office or state police. That approach drew the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which called for transparency and accountability.

“Osaze’s death was a senseless tragedy. Our hearts are with his family and friends in their time of mourning,” ACLU-PA Executive Director Reggie Shuford said in the release. “The public deserves full disclosure of the details of how Osaze died, including the name of the officer who fired the fatal shot, any video and audio recordings that are available, and 911 telephone recordings.”

Douglas Shontz, State College borough’s communications specialist, said in an email that the borough is unable to comment because of the ongoing investigation.

“We will be sharing information when we are able to, but don’t want to do anything to compromise an independent and fair investigation into this tragic event,” Shontz wrote.

Shuford also argued police violence against minorities is a symptom of the country’s “inability to come to grips” with racial inequality.

“Osaze’s death is another example of how police acting as first responders for people who are in the midst of a mental health crisis can turn tragic,” Shuford said. “We need mental health professionals to be the first responders to people who are having mental health crises — not police.”

Borough police used to have assistance from mental health professionals on such calls, but the department got away from that practice for unknown reasons, Gardner said Monday at a community forum.

State College police Chief John Gardner talks to Pennsylvania state police and Lt. Greg Brauser amid an investigation at the Marvin Gardens apartment complex after a police-involved shooting on Wednesday, March 20, 2019. Abby Drey

Shuford called for the department to disclose how officers are trained to respond to those with mental health disabilities because, he said, officers still need training on how to deescalate such situations.

“Police officers are not social workers and they’re not psychiatrists. If officers in the State College Police Department have had training for intervening in a crisis, then it failed in this case,” Shuford said. “If they have not had the training, then the responsibility for that falls upon the leadership of the department and the borough. Either way, they failed Osaze Osagie.”

While borough officials haven’t compiled a complete list of relevant officer trainings, Centre County police departments have attended a 49-hour crisis intervention training, implicit bias training and social injustice trainings, King said during the community forum.

Attending a vigil last week for Osaze Osagie, state police Sgt. William Slaton encouraged patience until the investigation is completed.

“You can’t associate every incident just because it has a white versus a black person with every type of hateful incident in America,” said Slaton, who is a commander within the state police Equality and Inclusion Office.

Gardner has said his department has a robust process to handle misconduct and hopes to bring about change.

“Race is always going to be on the table. Even if this wasn’t about race, you can’t get away with not addressing it,” Gardner said Monday. “We don’t put up with nonsense ... There’s no free passes for police. If there’s wrongdoing, it’s going to be dealt with.”

Staff reporter Lauren Muthler contributed.

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Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.