Community members frustrated, want answers and change
The state police investigation into the March 20 shooting death of Osaze Osagie has come to a close, but work on improving the issues raised by the case should continue, Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said.
To not do so would “not be fair to the families involved: the Osagie family, the officers involved, our community and people who are struggling with some of the same issues,” he said.
The nearly 40 community members who gathered at the Centre County Courthouse on Monday to hear the results of the investigation also demanded change — in the way officers respond to mental health calls and to communities of color — and for someone to be held accountable for making that change happen.
Cantorna’s 228-page report of the investigation found that the use of deadly force against Osagie, a 29-year-old African American diagnosed with autism and with a history of anxiety and schizophrenia, was justified, and that race did not play a role in Osagie’s death. No charges will be brought against the officers involved.
“What do we do next as a community when we don’t have repercussions we can enforce?” Leslie Liang, of Ferguson Township, asked.
Several community members expressed hurt and frustration about how a call from Osagie’s father, Sylvester Osagie, to police out of concern for his son, who he believed to be off his medications and threatening to harm himself, ended in his son’s death.
Community members also expressed feeling a sense of uncertainty and confusion about where State College goes from here and how to make the change the DA, police and other officials have suggested, happen.
“I was so happy when I walked in here and saw this many people,” state police Sgt. William Slaton, a Heritage Affairs commander within the agency’s Equality and Inclusion Office, said. “You can change the process. We can speak to our legislators so we can change the law so it’s not when someone is at their breaking point that these officers had to go knock on the door, then someone answers the door and charges them within seconds with a knife.”
Several people, however, conveyed frustration with Slaton’s statement, saying the community has already been working for change by contacting legislators, speaking in front of Borough Council, attending rallies in Harrisburg, and participating in various task forces and meetings.
“If you want to change this narrative, then you show us, because I’m tired of the responsibility being on us, I really am,” Barbara Farmer, of State College, said. “We have to go to the legislature, and you know the process for getting even through to them. We called them, we wrote them, and we’re still where we are.
“So what responsibility will you take? Because as we leave here today, the heartbeat of hope has been damaged in the borough, and as we leave here today, we realize that Osagie is a sacrificial lamb in our community,” she said. “So what you going to do to prevent us from having any more sacrificial lambs so we can live safely in this community?”
Ferguson Township supervisor Laura Dininni implored Cantorna, Slaton and other state police officials present about what local leadership can do to effect change. Liang exhorted Cantorna to take ownership for what change he has authority over.
As a start, as part of his investigative report, Cantorna called for a task force — consisting of representatives of the county’s mental health system, mental health advocates and professionals, law enforcement and local community members — to be created to address the process of how to best process mental health warrants and consider whether changes in the Pennsylvania Mental Health Commitment laws should be made.
One issue with the mental health system that Cantorna said he would like to change is that someone must be at the point of crisis —where they are threatening to hurt themselves or others — before law enforcement can intervene.
“That’s something I believe I can directly help with,” Cantorna said. “There are things I can do to directly help with that. And I don’t want to lose that because we’re going to get a mental health call today, and another tomorrow.”
Issues of race and bias that might exist in the community and across the country, however, might be more difficult to fix, Cantorna said.
“I am very angry, because you cannot say that for 500 years, black people have not tried to get legislation to change with Black Lives Matter movements and three years of deaths and prosecuted attorneys and prosecuted officers,” Liang said. “I want to know what you can do, and what you can do to put pressure on people because it is not all on us.”
Various community groups, such as Campus Community and Unity and Showing Up for Racial Justice, have been meeting since the before the shooting to try to address race and bias issues. CCU — which consists of members of law enforcement, local elected officials and community members — has met at least four times since the shooting, and plans another impromptu meeting on Thursday. Cantorna has been present at each of those meetings, along with chiefs from all Centre Region police departments.
State College Borough Council at its April 15 meeting announced plans for a task force to be appointed pick up where the 2016 Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color report left off to address community concerns related to inclusion, diversity and equity, as well as mental health services in Centre County.
Part of that task force will be providing recommendations for the feasibility of establishing an office within the State College borough to address those issues specifically related to race and diversity, Manager Tom Fountaine said in a release.
“We will continue to collaborate with a wide variety of diverse, local partners to address community concerns as we seek strategies and programs designed to enhance the professional services provided by the women and men of the State College Police Department,” he said. “We will also work closely with the task force being formed to identify ways of improving the response to mental health needs in Centre County as well as ways to enhance the relationships and increase trust between police and communities of color.”
On Monday, Borough Council will hold a special meeting at 5:15 p.m., ahead of its regularly scheduled work session at the Municipal Building, to receive comment from the public related to the investigative report, and to discuss council’s role in the next steps.