Police killed Osaze Osagie four years ago. Here’s what has and hasn’t happened since
A version of this story first appeared in Talk of the Town, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau featuring the most important news and happenings in north-central Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.
STATE COLLEGE — On March 20, 2019, a white State College officer shot and killed Osaze Osagie, a Black man experiencing a mental health crisis who police said was holding a steak knife. The officer, along with two others, was sent to Osagie’s apartment to involuntarily transport him to the hospital for treatment at the request of his father.
It was the first fatal police shooting in department history, and it outraged the community. Calls for change centered around the intersection of policing, mental health, and racial bias.
Four years later, progress implementing the recommendations of multiple reports aimed at making the community a more equitable and safe place to live has been made in some areas but is sluggish in others.
“The glass is half empty or it’s half full. It all depends on your level of optimism,” said Leslie Laing, a member of the Task Force on Mental Health Crisis Services, which the borough formed after Osagie’s death.
Melanie Morrison of the 3/20 Coalition, a local group that advocates for racial and social justice, said local officials have made important changes since Osagie’s death. The State College Police Department hired a social worker to accompany officers serving 302 mental health warrants — the same kind used in Osagie’s case — and the State College Borough Council created a community police oversight board.
In early 2023, the Community Oversight Board launched its civilian complaint process to receive complaints about the police department from members of the community. But the chair of the board told Spotlight PA that its powers are limited and it can’t actually discipline officers.
“We’re not going to be able to investigate,” Chair Cynthia Young told Spotlight PA in November. “And we’re not going to be able to make the State College PD do anything.”
While the officer who shot Osagie, M. Jordan Pieniazek, was cleared of any wrongdoing by an internal police investigation and the county district attorney, a lawsuit filed by Osagie’s family alleges that Pieniazek was unfit for duty. According to a December report from WJAC, an attorney for State College borough asked the federal judge presiding over the case for “more time for pre-trial work.”
In October 2019, a few months after Osagie’s death, State College Borough Council hired the International Association of Chiefs of Police to conduct an outside review of the police department.
The IACP released a report in July 2020 that included 47 recommendations — 36 of which have been implemented, according to the police department’s online dashboard.
Key recommendations included assessing the use of body-worn camera video in “the review process to improve accountability, support early intervention with officers, and reinforce training” and making body-cam footage available to the public when possible, as well as requiring all officers to have “sufficient training to determine whether a person’s behavior is indicative of a mental health crisis.” Those three recommendations have been marked “completed.”
“[State College Police Department] remains committed to providing Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) to all of its officers, growing and expanding the Social Worker program, and remaining open to the concept of civilian response to address community concerns such as homelessness, roommate and neighbor disputes, etc.,” John Gardner, State College police chief, wrote in an email. “Additionally, SCPD is in the process of interviewing candidates to fill a grant-funded position for a Civilian Community Relations Officer to work with community members who may not feel comfortable working with a uniformed officer.”
Morrison called the IACP report and subsequent dashboard distractions. Any measure created by the police to police themselves is not reliable, she wrote in an email.
“Until honest admission of fault occurs,” she wrote, “everything done by the SCPD is performative at best, meant only to comfort the public and diminish the validity of cries for justice in the eyes of that trusting public.”
She wrote that the 3/20 Coalition pushed for the removal of guns from the 302 warrant process, but it “was not even discussed nor considered, despite it being the number one reason Osaze is dead.”
“In Pennsylvania, police or peace officers are tasked with serving 302 warrants,” Gardner wrote. “There is no consideration being given to taking guns away from police while performing their mandated duties.”
» The police department and others participated in a live panel discussion about policing and race in January.
The mental health task force formed by local officials also released its own set of recommendations regarding the police’s role in responding to mental health calls, existing county resources, and more in November 2020. But implementation of those recommendations has been slow going.
As of March 13, seven of the 21 recommendations had been implemented, according to a State College borough online dashboard.
“The pace is slower than we anticipated, however, progress is being made,” Laing said.
Creating a mental health court in Centre County that offers people charged with crimes alternatives to jail was among the task force’s recommendations, and Laing said the “district attorney has kept his word and [is] making strides” setting it up.
State College Borough Council President Jesse Barlow wrote in an email to Spotlight PA that “we need to follow through all the way” on the mental health task force’s recommendations. He also wants to see the police department implement suggestions made by a task force on policing and communities of color that was formed by the borough and Penn State.
State College Mayor Ezra Nanes has proclaimed March 20 “Osaze Osagie Day of Remembrance,” and multiple community events are planned to mark the anniversary.
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