Penn State Professors Discuss Osaze Osagie’s Death, Police Brutality In Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Op-Ed

Two Penn State professors published an opinion piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Monday discussing police brutality in the State College community and a lack of action both locally and nationally.

Eleanor Brown, a professor of law and international affairs and a senior scientist at Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute, and Ben Jones, assistant director of the Rock Ethics Institute, began their op-ed by recounting the death of Osaze Osagie. He was a 29-year-old State College man shot and killed in March 2019 by police serving a mental health warrant.

“This police killing, like most of the thousand plus that occur each year in our country, never made national headlines,” Brown and Jones wrote. “The case was too messy to attract outside attention. There was no video capturing the incident. Moreover, the police made sure to tell the community that Osagie was armed with a steak knife.”

Perhaps the largest big-picture point the authors made was that policing is problematic across the country, not just in “big cities.” According to the professors, Osagie’s death resulted in “merely an aberration in a peaceful college town like State College” but was “especially distressing” for the borough’s Black residents and students.

“The loss of another Black life prompted little change. Over a year has passed and there still has been no meaningful reform or real accountability for State College police,” they wrote. “Such inaction often plays out in local communities, resulting in the frustration and anger we have seen erupt in recent protests. As long as the status quo remains, it is unrealistic to expect people of color — or families of the mentally ill — to overcome the fear and distrust they have for the police.”

Brown and Jones proceeded to discuss the three main obstacles that have “stood in the way of reform and further eroded trust” in local law enforcement.

First, they asserted local policing suffers from an “accountability vacuum” as a result of a lack of transparency. They cited a lack of bystanders in Osagie’s case, as well as the officers involved remaining anonymous, as evidence to support their claim. Furthermore, Pennsylvania law prevents police disciplinary records from being disclosed.

They also believe local officials are more concerned with justifying tactics rather than fixing them following controversial shootings, such as Osagie’s. Brown and Jones noted Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna cleared the officers of wrongdoing following a state investigation.

“In State College, the district attorney and police department both released reports claiming the shooting of Osagie was justified,” they wrote. “The department emphasized that its officers’ actions ‘were consistent with [its] policies and procedures.’ But the vital question is whether the right policies were in place”

Finally, Brown and Jones believe officers respond with “empty action” following shootings.

“At their best, reviews of police policies provide an impetus for meaningful reform. At their worst, they offer only the impression of action,” they wrote. “After Osagie’s killing, State College paid $60,000 for a review of its policies by the International Association of Chiefs of Police — hardly an organization committed to the reforms necessary to curb police killings. In fact, this organization denounced the very recommendations made by [the Police Executive Research Firm] that could have saved Osagie.”

Last week, the State College Borough Council unanimously passed a resolution addressing some demands of the 3/20 Coalition, a local advocacy group founded following Osagie’s death, which included creating a community oversight board for the borough’s police department. Still, Brown and Jones believe these policies aren’t enough to create real change within the community.

“But for too long, municipalities have been content with inaction, as the number of Black (and other) lives killed has continued to mount,” they wrote. “We need sustained pressure on local officials, in communities large and small, to overcome inertia and ensure that this moment results in systemic and lasting change.”

Since Osagie’s death, the 3/20 Coalition, named after the date of his death, has led several protests in State College. His name has been referenced many times during local demonstrations, often alongside others, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who’ve received more national attention.

Brown and Jones are the latest professors to pen an opinion piece in a national publication. Last week, English professor Paul M. Kellerman published an op-ed in Esquire magazine criticizing Penn State’s plans to return to campus this fall.

You can read Brown and Jones’ opinion piece in full here.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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