State College releases information on internal investigation
On the eve of the five month anniversary of Osaze Osagie’s death by State College police shooting, the department released its internal review of the incident and cleared the involved officers of any wrongdoing.
The report, which was discussed at Monday night’s State College Borough Council meeting and a community meeting Tuesday, found the involved officers acted in accordance with department policy, established procedures and the law.
Neither American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania communications Director Andy Hoover nor Kathleen Yurchak and Andrew Shubin, attorneys for the Osagie family, responded to request for comment Tuesday.
Assistant Chief Matthew Wilson conducted the internal review and presented his findings to the Conduct, Procedures and Review Board chaired by Captain Chris Fishel. The board was made up of a police department lieutenant, sergeant and two police officers.
Use of force, medical aid after use of force, bias based policing, tactical considerations, training considerations, supervision, post-shooting investigative process and post-shooting personnel services were the policies reviewed by Wilson and the board.
In a departure from his usual impartiality and publicly reserved nature, Chief John Gardner said he agreed with the board’s findings.
“Some of the key factors that led to my decision include the following: the involved officers were following procedures for serving 302 mental health warrants in regard to both department policy and state law. Osaze Osagie charged officers with a deadly weapon in an attempted assault,” he said. “This prompted the use of deadly force due to the immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death to the officers. The deployment of the Taser was ineffective in stopping the assault.”
According to Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna’s report released in May, officers knocked on Osagie’s door and attempted to serve him a 302 mental health warrant. Instead of speaking with officers, Osagie, a 29-year-old African American with a history of mental illness, brandished a kitchen knife, refused to comply with orders to drop the knife and ran toward the officers.
One officer fired his Taser because “there was no opportunity to switch to his firearm,” while another officer fired his gun four times. All three officers reported the Taser deployment and the shots were fired “almost simultaneous,” according to the internal review report.
Officers performed their duties on March 20 based on Osagie’s behavior, the event circumstances and evidence presented to them at the time of the incident, Gardner said. The review found no evidence of bias in the officers’ past contacts or arrests, he said.
The night prior to the shooting, Osagie’s father, Sylvester, met with two borough police officers because his son was missing, had a history of anxiety and schizophrenia and was most likely off his medication. He also believed his son might have been suicidal, according to the report.
“Shoot, God is dead in this country, and soon I hopefully will be dead also. My fast-approaching deep sleep will result from a struggle between God and evil,” Osaze Osagie texted his father. “Any poor soul whose life I take today, if any poor soul at all, may God forgive his sins if he has any.”
The initial responding officer reported the “concerning” text messages made the seriousness of the threats feel a “little more (serious) than normal,” according to the report.
Gardner said he previously did not issue a public comment on the shooting to “refrain from potentially influencing the investigatory process and subsequent outcomes.”
“With this internal review now closed, I want to take a moment to express my support for the men and women who serve this community as police officers,” he said. “The past five months have been very difficult for our officers, and our community. Despite these trying times, the officers of the State College police department have continued to show professionalism in the performance of their duties, which has always been a hallmark of this police department.”
Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said that, consistent with borough policy, the officer who shot Osagie is cleared for duty, but remains on administrative leave pending medical clearance to return to active duty. He also took a moment to praise the State College Police Department.
“This is a department that holds each other accountable to the high standards of professional law enforcement and public safety,” he said. “I know there continue to be issues and concerns within our community about mental health and equity, diversity and inclusion. We remain committed to working together to improve our community’s overall response to persons in mental health crisis.”
Gardner offered his “sincere thoughts and prayers” to the Osagie family, the officers involved in the shooting and community members “impacted by this tragic incident.”
“I look forward to working with our community, our police officers, along with police agencies throughout Centre County, and the task force announced this evening, as we look to bring about needed changes in our mental health responses, process and procedures while also remaining attentive to issues of equity, diversity and inclusion,” Gardner said Monday.
Gardner and Fountaine responded to questions about the report from about 11 community members during an hourlong meeting Tuesday at the Municipal Building, including one about how police can be trusted to investigate themselves.
The pair spoke about how the department has previously fired officers for wrongdoing — like former Sgt. Thomas Dann for tampering with and stealing drug evidence — and Fountaine said he has “a high level of confidence” in the department to hold its officers accountable.
Gardner added that peer reviews are common throughout other industries, using the American Medical Association and American Bar Association as examples.
“It’s a board of peers who understand that subject matter,” he said. “I will tell you, our officers ... are much harder on our people than anybody in the public would be. There is a code and a standard of conduct that’s expected. No self-respecting individual ... (is) going to be satisfied with sweeping something under the rug. I can assure you of that.”