State College

Did the Pa. mental health system fail Osaze Osagie? Centre County DA calls for change

Osaze Osagie battled mental health challenges for more than a decade, requiring intervention from police and local agencies through the years, according to a report released Wednesday by Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna.

The 29-year-old had been hospitalized for mental health issues at least six times, had a history of autism, anxiety, Asperger’s syndrome, schizophrenia, auditory hallucinations, paranoid delusions and thought evil spirits were targeting him. He had made threats and acts of violence to others, according to the report.

But Osagie’s full mental health history was not made known to State College police as they attempted to serve a “302” mental health warrant on him on March 20, Cantorna said.

Instead, an officer fatally shot him after he ran toward them with a steak knife.

While community meetings have argued race was a factor in Osagie’s death — he was an African American — state police Sgt. William Slaton said it was the mental health system, not race, that led to the shooting.

“The mental health system in this country and this state needs to change,” state police Sgt. William Slaton said at a press conference Wednesday. “The mental health system failed this gentleman.”

Investigation6
State police Sgt. William Slaton answers a question during the release of the report for the investigation of the death of Osaze Osagie. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

In December, Osagie transitioned from a community residential rehabilitation program to begin living independently at an Old Boalsburg Road apartment. Shortly after, he requested to be discharged from his peer support program and became non-compliant with his treatment and medication, according to Cantorna’s report.

Cantorna — who announced the shooting was justified — also urged the community to take a “hard look” at local and state mental health procedures, specifically the “marked increased” of 302 warrants being served.

Sixty-eight such warrants were served during the 2016 fiscal year. That number decreased to 57 during the 2017 fiscal year, but spiked in the 2018 fiscal year to 304. Between July and March 17, 163 warrants were served, according to Cantorna’s report.

“We have written the statutes in such a way that ensure that people reach a mental health crisis — where they are either suicidal or homicidal — before authorities can act,” Cantorna said. “And when you’re dealing with someone who has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, and is off their medication, it is very predictable they will act consistent with how that disease presented itself previously.”

Citing an email sent to him from a mental health professional, Cantorna said Pennsylvania’s mental health laws are some of the strictest in the country. While other states allow prediction of future dangerousness based on recent behavior, Pennsylvania requires dangerousness to be proven through acts that occurred within the previous 30 days.

“To require families to wait until that person is actually in a mental health crisis, off their medication, potentially suicidal and homicidal, puts them at risk, puts their families at risk (and) puts law enforcement at risk,” Cantorna said.

He recommended a task force be created to address how best to process 302 warrants and whether changes to the state’s mental health commitment laws should be made. The task force should include county mental health representatives, mental health advocates, law enforcement, local government and community members, he said.

In April, State College Borough Council President Evan Myers said the borough was working to organize two new groups to build upon the Task Force on Policing Communities of Color report completed in 2016. The borough “has it right,” according to Cantorna, who expressed his sympathies to both the Osagie family and the officers involved.

“We ask (officers) to go down there and serve a 302 warrant and they have to suffer the consequence of having to be in a life or death situation and take someone’s life,” Cantorna said. “We owe it to them and our community to look at this seriously and soberly, and ask the question: What should we we be doing?”

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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.
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