Community members ask questions during special State College borough meeting
While the district attorney’s report on the investigation into the death of Osaze Osagie determined that racial bias did not play a factor in an officer’s decision to use deadly force, the nearly 70 community members — of varying races — who showed up to Borough Council’s special meeting Monday evening to comment on that report had a different message to tell.
“Here’s what we’re not going to do,” Jennifer Black, of State College, said. “We’re not going to erase race from events in 2019. We’re not going to pretend that race, race bias, racial injustice, the devaluation of black life and the primacy and privilege of white people weren’t factors in the determination of justifiable force.”
Osagie, a 29-year-old African American diagnosed with autism and with a history of anxiety and schizophrenia, was killed March 20 when he reportedly pulled a knife on State College police officers attempting to serve a mental health warrant at his Old Boalsburg Road apartment.
The 15 others who spoke in front of council all echoed Black’s plea to some degree. Community members also called for more action from council, including community oversight on policing, an anti-bias advisory board and officer-trained licensed mental health counselor to respond to mental health warrants.
“My purpose for speaking tonight is to ensure you know that the community is demanding reform,” Leslie Liang, of Ferguson Township, said. “What measures will you take to make sure a person with a known mental illness is not subject to deadly force? What will you do to move this discussion to state and federal level?”
Monday’s special meeting was the result of a motion introduced by Councilman Dan Murphy and seconded by Jesse Barlow at last week’s council meeting, in anticipation of the release of the Centre County district attorney’s investigative report, to hear public comments and concerns, and to update the community on Borough Council’s next steps.
As part of the updates, Manager Tom Fountaine unveiled more details about the planned task force on “policing an inclusive and diverse community, with a focus on mental health services,” first announced at the April 15 council meeting.
The purpose of that task force is to build on the work completed by the Task Force on Policing Communities of Color in 2016, including efforts to recruit and retain racial/ethnic minority police officers, continue training police officers in respect to serving a diverse community effectively, provide less lethal options to police officers, consider effective forums to the public to report bias, discrimination or unfair treatment by police, and to develop the feasibility of a State College Borough Office of Equity and Inclusion.
The task force will be made up of members from across the community, Fountaine said. Some of the groups they are looking to include are Campus and Community in Unity, Central Pa. Standing Up for Racial Justice, Penn State students and faculty members in the African-American Studies department, as well as law enforcement, elected borough and county officials, and mental health professionals. An initial report from the group would be expected in 9-12 months, but time may be extended and interim reports and updates for implementation may be made as work progresses, Fountaine said.
The borough is also creating a landing page on its website at www.statecollegepa.us for information on the Osagie shooting, and updates on efforts taken to work on issues brought to light by the case.
Residents, although they said they appreciated the borough’s efforts to address the issues raised by the Osagie case so far, were mostly in agreement that they wanted to see more than another task force.
“I suggest that it is not just enough to determine that the procedure was followed and that is was correct and that these officers followed the correct procedure — because still, one of our young people is dead,” Charles Dumas, of State College, said. “That’s something we need to figure out to avoid this in the future, and figure out why this did happen.”
After listening to residents’ concerns, council members each took time to respond. Murphy suggested looking at making the task force permanent, partnering with the county to get a better idea of what’s needed to help improve mental health issues in the community and beyond, and to keep updated on progress toward State College police implementing body cameras. Councilwoman Theresa Lafer called for a closer look at the effectiveness of the police department’s de-escalation and bias trainings, and council President Evan Myers committed further work sessions to continuing the conversation, and working through solutions.
Drawing on the personal experience with racial harassment he said he had growing up as an Asian American in State College, Mayor Don Hahn ended the meeting with a message for all those in attendance.
“I understand the people who are saying that State College is not a safe place for African Americans or people of color, who might be looking around or putting their resumes into some place that’s more diverse,” he said. “But in my opinion, as a person who has lived here my entire life, I actually think that is the worst thing for State College.
“I can’t say don’t do it, but I think that now more than ever, we need more diversity.”