Osagie Family To Sue State College Police Department, Officers Involved In Son’s Shooting Death
Osaze Osagie’s parents, Sylvester and Lyunolu Osagie, filed a Notice of Claim Thursday expressing their intent to sue the State College Police Department and the officers involved in the shooting death of their son.
Osagie died last March when police officers serving a 302 mental health warrant shot him at his home on Old Boalsburg Road.
The notice alleges that Osaze Osagie’s death was a result of a “system breakdown in the operation of the SCPD and their failure to follow basic safety procedures for interacting with mentally ill people.” It claims that Sylvester Osagie gave police a detailed account of his son’s mental health struggles, including suicidal and threatening texts from him. The responding officers allegedly were not aware of this information when they approached Osaze Osagie to serve the warrant, and had no plan when it came to how they would encounter him.
The notice also alleges that the officers involved in the incident committed “willful misconduct” and are “liable for the wrongful death of Osaze Osagie, as well as assault, battery, violation of civil rights and survival claims.”
Pennsylvania law requires that a party preparing to initiate civil action must notify the representative of the party they are filing against at least six months in advance of the filing. In this case, the Osagie family submitted the claim to Borough Manager Tom Fountaine, who will receive it on behalf of the State College Police Department.
The Osagies, their team of three attorneys, and Andy Hoover, communications director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, held a press conference in conjunction with the filing of the notice Thursday.
The legal team representing the Osagie family consists of State College attorneys Kathleen Yurchak and Andrew Shubin as well as Andrew Celli, a founding partner at the New York-based civil rights firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP.
“Our work, on behalf of the family, is to gather the facts, there are far too many unanswered questions, to independently review, and analyze them, and advocate for change,” Celli said.
Yurchak is a partner at Steinbacher, Goodall & Yurchak, a law firm specializing in civil rights and elder care cases with an office in State College. Shubin, a local civil rights attorney, represented survivors of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Celli’s background includes cases involving police misconduct, voting rights, and employment discrimination cases.
Sylvester and Lyunolu Osagie addressed Borough Council last week, and said that “many questions” still remain regarding the circumstances surrounding their son’s death.
Celli defined the suit as “an effort to uncover the whole truth about what happened to [Sylvestre and Lyunolu Osagie’s] son Osaze on March 20 and why, and to hold the system accountable for its failures for his tragic death.”
Celli and Shubin’s remarks focused primarily on the alleged mishandling of responses to mental health situations, which Shubin described as “systemic training and policy-level failures.” The team said that it plans to meet with the police department, the newly-formed mental health task force commissioned by the State College Borough Council, and policy makers over the course of its investigation. Celli said that the team would “pressure” local entities to answer its questions and address its concerns.
“We expect action to occur as a result of this,” Celli said, listing policy changes, training, personnel consequences, and compensation to the Osagie family as possible outcomes after the investigation has concluded.
Since March, the office of District Attorney Bernie Cantorna and the State College Police Department have both conducted and released reviews of the circumstances surrounding Osagie’s death. Both cleared the officers involved of wrongdoing.
Community members, however, have protested these decisions for several months, citing a need for police protocol reform, mental health-focused initiatives, and increased transparency.
“They came to conclusions that don’t make sense by their own terms,” Celli said of the reports. “If the system worked perfectly, then there’s something wrong with the system.”
He described them as a “snapshot” of the situation, while the goal of his team’s investigation would be to obtain “the whole movie,” including the police department and community protocol involved in Osagie’s death. Shubin said the team wouldn’t reject the report outright, but instead expand their investigation beyond its findings.
Shubin also said that the investigation would examine issues of racial bias and profiling.
“Our community, and most importantly, the mothers and fathers of children of color, or children with mental health challenges, need to feel confident that the police are there to serve this community rather than simply police it,” he said.
Hoover said that the Pennsylvania ACLU would not serve as a co-counsel on the case, but echoed Celli and Shubin’s remarks.
The State College Borough Council recently appropriated $200,000 to fund a series of mental health and racial equity-focused initiatives as well as an external review of police department procedure.
Assistant Borough Manager Tom King said that the Borough would also update a report produced by a task force on police and communities of color that was initially active in 2016. King also said that municipal officials would consult members of several Penn State academic departments, including African American studies, health and human development, and criminal justice to help them develop “best practices” focused on the issues at hand.
“This encounter did not occur suddenly or unexpectedly,” Celli said. “Osaze’s family alerted the police to exactly what the situation was, time elapsed, supervisors were informed, yet still tragedy occurred.”
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