State College

‘Osaze Osagie did not have to die.’ Family announces plans to sue State College police officers

The legal team representing Osaze Osagie’s family said they plan to file a lawsuit against the State College Police Department and the officers involved in the fatal shooting of Osagie in March.

Osagie’s death was a result of systemic policy failures, attorneys Andy Shubin, Kathleen Yurchak and Andrew Celli Jr. said during a Thursday press conference at the State College Municipal Building. The trio was joined by Osagie’s parents, Iyun and Sylvester.

“The mental health processes in place failed our son. The police procedures also failed our son. And the officers who responded to our son’s apartment failed him as well,” Sylvester Osagie said in a statement. “We are bringing this case to make sure Osaze is the last person to die under such circumstances.”

In a notice sent to Borough Manager Tom Fountaine and police Chief John Gardner, Celli said the officers’ actions constituted willful misconduct and argued they are liable for Osagie’s wrongful death, assault and a violation of his civil rights.

Borough communications specialist Douglas Shontz declined to comment.

Three borough police officers attempted to serve a mental health warrant on Osagie — a 29-year-old African American diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, anxiety and Asperger’s syndrome— in a narrow hallway outside of Osagie’s apartment along Old Boalsburg Road before he brandished a knife, ignored verbal commands to put it down and moved toward the officers, the district attorney’s investigative report said.

Iyun and Sylvester Osagie listen to one of their attorneys, Andy Shubin, speak during a press conference on Thursday. The family and their legal team will file a lawsuit against the State College Police Department and the officers involved in the fatal shooting of Osagie in March. Abby Drey

One officer deployed his Taser — which was ineffective — and a second officer fired his pistol four times. After releasing his 228-page report that exonerated the officers in May, Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said the officer “had no other option but to shoot.”

Prior to their arrival, Osagie’s father showed high-ranking State College police supervisors threatening texts messages from his “suicidal” son and put them in contact with Osaze’s mental health providers, Shubin said.

“Inexcusably, the responding officers were unaware of this critical information prior to making the decision to confront Osaze Osagie,” Shubin said in a statement. “Instead, they treated this situation as if it were a ‘routine’ law enforcement operation, when in fact it was a mental health crisis.”

The officers “surprised” Osagie as if they were serving a drug trafficking search warrant, rather than use standard mental health crisis techniques, Shubin said.

“Osaze would still be alive today if the police had followed standard procedures for handling mental health emergencies,” Celli said. “This tragic loss of life didn’t have to happen; Osaze Osagie did not have to die.”

Iyun Osagie hugs a friend who was at the press conference announcing the filing of a lawsuit into the fatal shooting of her son Osaze. Abby Drey

State College police in August released the findings of its internal review, which found the officers acted in accordance with department policy and their training.

Osagie’s parents expressed disappointment with the department’s findings at a Borough Council meeting earlier this month, with Sylvester saying the report was based on “the word of the officers involved against that of a dead man.”

The department “completely mishandled” the situation, American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford said in a statement.

“Nothing that any of us do now can bring back Osaze,” Shuford said. “While it is little solace for the Osagie family, this filing will at least provide more information about what happened that day, who was involved and how State College police are trained to address people with mental health disabilities.”

The 25-page report also found race was not a factor in the shooting — something community members have vehemently questioned.

Sylvester Osagie shakes hands with State College Assistant Borough Manager of Public Safety Tom King after the press conference on Thursday. Abby Drey

The State College police, district attorney and state police investigations were “incomplete,” Celli said. All three had an opportunity to reflect on what went wrong and formulate a “better” response, but did not take it, Shubin said.

Osagie’s death spurred the creation of a memorial scholarship at Penn State to support students with mental health challenges, a county-wide mental health task force, a borough race and equity plan and an outside review of police department’s policies. The borough pledged $200,000 to the latter three initiatives.

In response to a question from Assistant Borough Manager of Public Safety Tom King about the borough’s initiatives, Shubin said the borough should be applauded.

“What I’m hoping for is that these task force ... are going to have access to all the necessary information; that there will be transparency; that they will be able to talk to witnesses; they will be able to see internal documents,” Shubin said. “... We think that that’s critical. In order for these efforts to be a success, it’s going to take transparency and the cooperation of the police department.”

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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.