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 State College police officer shot and killed Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old Black man experiencing a mental health crisis.
The shooting marked the first time in State College Police Department history that an officer killed someone. The community responded with outrage, sparking a series of follow-up actions by the State College Borough Council. One was to establish the Community Oversight Board, a group of civilians tasked with oversight of the police.
“The formation of the Independent Community Police Oversight Board is a necessary step in reframing the relationship that the residents of State College have with the police,” according to the ordinance passed by borough council in August 2021.
The Community Oversight Board was given the authority to implement a civilian complaint process, through which it could “receive, process, and investigate complaints about the (police department) from members of the community.”
On Nov. 10, the board approved that process and it is expected to be open to the public in January. Here’s how it will work:
What information is collected about the person submitting the complaint?
People submitting complaints have the option to submit them anonymously, though they are asked to provide contact information either way. Third parties can submit complaints on behalf of someone else.
The Community Oversight Board Complaint Form also asks for the gender and racial/ethnic background of the person submitting the complaint, but this information is not required.
The form asks the complainant to provide the location, date, and time of the incident; the name of the police officer or department employee, their badge number, a description of the officer/employee, and their gender and racial/ethnic background.
In addition to a complete description of the incident, complainants can also provide names and contact information for witnesses, and any available audio, video, or photos of the incident.
How are complaints submitted?
Assuming the civilian complaint process goes live in January as scheduled, people will be able to file a complaint:
By mailing the form to the Community Oversight Board, 243 S. Allen St., State College, PA 16801
By faxing the form to 814-231-3082
By submitting the printed form in person to the borough’s equity and inclusion director, Chiluvya Zulu, at the State College Municipal Building (address above)
By emailing the form to email@example.com
By calling 814-234-7100 (8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays) or 814-234-7150 (after hours, weekends, and holidays; this is the police department’s non-emergency number) — and asking for the director of equity and inclusion.
What authority does the Community Oversight Board have to respond to complaints?
“We’re not going to be able to investigate,” Cynthia Young, the chair of the Community Oversight Board, told Spotlight PA. “And we’re not going to be able to make the State College PD do anything.”
According to the complaint process, the Community Oversight Board “will not make determinations of SCPD employee misconduct.”
Though the ordinance did empower the board to “investigate” complaints, the term was not defined and the board has chosen not to interpret it on its own.
The complaint process is “an alternate pathway to file a complaint or to voice concern” about police department employees, according to the board. Furthermore, “the priority of the CCP is to provide support to the complainant.”
All complaints submitted to the board are confidential regardless of whether someone provides their name
Reports involving “child abuse, physical harm or the threat of physical harm” must be forwarded to the State College Police Department. Otherwise, people submitting complaints to the board can choose whether they go through the police department’s complaint process as well, with the support of the board.
In addition to supporting complainants in the review process, Young said the board will also be able to track the kind of complaints that are made and make recommendations for improvement to the police department and borough council.
“The only thing we really have is the bully pulpit,” she said. “… but I don’t think that’s insignificant.”
What information will be available to the public?
The Community Oversight Board intends to maintain a complaint database, but it’s not clear what kind of access the public might have to complaint information.
Young told Spotlight PA that she didn’t know whether community members would be able to see redacted complaints, but she said she assumed the police would have concerns about whether the complaints could be redacted effectively.
She said that the board will monitor complaints and release data trends.
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