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State College marks four years since fatal police shooting

Plus: Penn State leaders planning layoffs, a Pa. hospital has property tax exemption revoked, and Spotlight PA hosts a Sunshine Week event.

This is Talk of the Town, a free weekly newsletter delivering top news from State College and the surrounding region.

March 16, 2023
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Inside this edition: Penn State leaders plan layoffs amid budget deficit, a Pa. hospital’s revoked property tax exemption is a “warning shot” for other nonprofits, and top Democrats knew about harassment allegations. Happy Sunshine Week ☀️
Mourners remember Osaze Osagie at a makeshift memorial. Osagie was killed by State College, Pennsylvania, police in 2019.
Abby Drey / Centre Daily Times

On March 20, 2019, a white State College police officer shot and killed Osaze Osagie, a Black man experiencing a mental health crisis. 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.

Sarah Rafacz, State College Editor

“The reality is that too many people with serious mental illness who do not have money in Pennsylvania are lost. Whether they are lost in a jail cell, they’re lost in the state institutions, or they’re lost because they’re hanging out on the side of the road and no one knows that they’re there, they are like the invisible people in our society.”

—Christopher Welsh, head of the Delaware County public defender’s office, told Spotlight PA and PINJ
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—Sarah, Spotlight PA State College Editor
» Penn State president says cuts will be deeper than anticipated as leaders finalize layoff plans 

» Editor’s Note: Secrecy is too often the norm in Pennsylvania state and local governments

» Breaking down Shapiro’s plan to eliminate two of Pa.’s cell phone taxes

» Key Pa. senator’s record has Democrats, voting advocates worried passing election reform will be difficult

» Top Democrats knew about sexual harassment allegation against Pa. lawmaker in 2019

» A Pa. hospital’s revoked property tax exemption is a ‘warning shot’ to other nonprofits, expert says

» VITAL DATA: Join us tonight from 6-7 p.m. on Zoom for a free panel on health care reporting in Pennsylvania, how we fight for open records, and your rights under the Right-to-Know Law. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.

» UNEQUAL ELECTIONS: Join us and a panel of election experts on Thursday, March 30 from 6-7 p.m. EST on Zoom for a free discussion on unequal voting policies in the state, how they impact voters, and possible solutions. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
A golden sunrise over a snowy Pine Creek Rail Trail near Wellsboro — courtesy of Linda Stager.

Want to be featured here? Send your best local pics to talkofthetown@spotlightpa.org.
A golden sunrise over a snowy Pine Creek Rail Trail near Wellsboro, Pennsylvania
» SC: Penn State to face Texas A&M in first round of NCAA tourney
» CDT: 3 staffers assaulted at Centre County prisons, state police say
» WTAJ: Residents concerned about proposed Centre County solar farm

» CDT: State College school district appoints first Black superintendent
» Mirror: Altoona allots $1M for housing for people facing homelessness

» Express: Airlines eye airport for service in Williamsport
Want us to list your event? Send it to us.

» March 16: Cornell’s Amanda Rodewald gives a free seminar — Strategic Conservation in an Uncertain World: It Takes a Village — at Penn State.

» March 18: Centre Knitters Guild hosts “For the Love of Fiber,” a day dedicated to knitting, spinning, weaving, and embroidery. 

» March 18: Ten Thousand Villages State College celebrates Nowruz, the Afghan New Year.

» March 18-19: More than 20 farms in Potter and Tioga counties are participating in the 19th annual Maple Weekend.

» March 20: Learn about “Nature’s Weirdos” at Canoe Creek State Park.

» March 20: Celebrate the Spring Equinox at RE Farm Cafe at Windswept.
Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
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