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Two State College Attorneys Representing Parents Of Man Fatally Shot By Borough Police

Updated with comment from the ACLU of Pennsylvania

Saying that they are seeking answers for how and why their son was killed, the parents of a State College man who was fatally shot by borough police last week are now being represented by two local attorneys.

State College attorneys Kathleen Yurchak and Andrew Shubin said on Wednesday that they are representing Sylvester and Iyunolu Osagie, the mother and father of 29-year-old Osaze Osagie, who died from multiple gunshot wounds on March 20 after a confrontation with borough police officers, who arrived at his Old Boalsburg Road apartment to serve him with a mental health warrant.

Police had gone to the apartment at 1:15 p.m. after being contacted by Osagie’s father, who was concerned about his son’s recent erratic behavior. Yurchak and Shubin said Osagie was experiencing “medication-related mental health symptoms.” According to a search warrant affidavit filed by Pennsylvania State Police, which is leading the investigation, Osagie confronted officers with a knife and ignored commands to drop it. When Osagie allegedly “came after” police, an officer shot and killed him.

“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” Shubin said in a news release. “They went to the police for help and instead, their son died from police gunfire.”

Yurchak said the shooting and its circumstances will “forever haunt” the Osagies. In an email, she said the family is not focused on a civil lawsuit at this time.

“The family is focusing on finding out the results of the criminal investigation,” Yurchak said.

Sylvester Osagie, a Penn State administrator and labor and employment relations professor who, according to a news release, has provided training to law enforcement officers, said that “as the father of an autistic, African American son and as an academic, I am acutely aware of the staggering number of tragic police encounters with those experiencing mental health issues and persons of color…  the decision to ask the police for help is difficult and fraught with peril.

“Like any father, I felt I needed to do everything possible to make sure that my son was safe.”

Iyunolu Osagie, an English professor, said her family had previously had positive interactions with the State College Police Department and former Chief Tom King, who now serves as assistant borough manager for public safety.

“What happened to our son is even more difficult to fathom given how accepting the community has been of our family and Osaze, in particular, since we moved to State College in 1992,” Iyunolu Osagie said. “We want answers to how and why our son died.”

According to WPSU, Chief John Gardner said on Monday night that officers had interacted with Osagie in the past but never had a violent encounter.

Osagie’s death marked the first fatal shooting by State College police in the department’s 103-year history. The search warrant indicated that state police seized several 9 mm casings, bullet fragments, a taser and a knife from Osagie’s apartment kitchen after the shooting. WPSU reported that a state police official said officers first used a taser but that it was not effective.

The officers involved have been placed on administrative leave pending the results of the investigation.

Yurchak and Shubin said they met on Tuesday with Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna, who will ultimately decide if charges are filed, and discussed the importance of a “rigorous, independent, and transparent investigation, which includes an assessment of the role that mental health and race may have played in the shooting.”

The attorneys said they and the Osagie family want the investigation to look at more than the actions of individual officers.

“A tragedy like this demands critical scrutiny and reform of law enforcement practices and policies,” Yurchak and Shubin said in a release.

Cantorna said last week that the investigation would be “thorough and complete,” and that he would “report back fully” on its conclusions.

“The matter will be investigated no different than any other death case that’s occurred in Centre County,” Cantorna said. “It will not be until that process is complete that we can reach conclusions on what occurred, the use of force and the appropriateness of that use of force.”

Osaze Osagie was born in Ithaca, N.Y. in  1989 and moved to State College with his family at the age of 4. He graduated from State College Area High School in 2007 and attended Penn State for two years, during which he was diagnosed with autism and withdrew “when mental health challenges became too difficult to manage,” according to a website established by his family and friends.

Despite his struggles over the last 10 years, his family wrote, he used his time and skills to volunteer with various local nonprofit organizations, including the Community Service Group, where he worked with the intellectually and developmentally disabled.

Osagie was a devout Christian and an active member of State College Access Church and State College Assembly of God. Friends have frequently described him as “gentle” and “kind.”

“Osaze was a quiet young man, soft-spoken, and personable. He loved to read his bible and loved to go to church,” his family wrote. “He loved music. He loved to pray. He was considerate and kindhearted. He cared deeply for others. Osaze loved his family dearly.”

His family is establishing a scholarship in his name within the Office of Educational Equity at Penn State. A funeral is planned for Saturday in State College and in lieu of flowers, his family requested that donations be made to the planned scholarship fund. Details on donations can be found here.

Update

In a statement on Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania called for “transparency and accountability” in the case.

“Police violence against people of color is a symptom of our country’s inability to come to grips with how racial inequality poisons life in America for Black and brown people,” said Reggie Shuford, ACLU of Pennsylvania executive director. “Twenty-five to 50 percent of all police killings involve people with disabilities. Osaze’s death is another example of how police acting as first responders for people who are in the midst of a mental health crisis can turn tragic. We need mental health professionals to be the first responders to people who are having mental health crises – not police.”

Shufford said the public deserves disclosure of “the details of how Osaze died, including the name of the officer who fired the fatal shot, any video and audio recordings that are available, and 911 telephone recordings.”

State College Police have said they will defer questions about the case to state police and the district attorney’s office while the investigation is ongoing.

He also called for full disclosure of how State College police are trained to handle calls involving people with mental disabilities, adding that mental health professionals should be brought in to respond first and that officers should be trained to de-escalate.

“But they will never have the skills of a mental health professional. Police officers are not social workers, and they’re not psychiatrists,” Shufford said.

“The tragedy of police violence in America will end only when public officials take it seriously. It’s time for the epidemic of Americans being killed by police, who are supposed to protect and serve, to stop.”

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About the Author

Geoff Rushton (StateCollege.com)

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.

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