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State College Response To Osagie Family Lawsuit Says Officers Followed Training, Shooting ‘Justifiable’

State College Borough on Monday responded to a federal lawsuit filed by the parents of Osaze Osagie, saying the police officers involved in his 2019 shooting death followed their training and that it was a “necessary act of self-defense,” by the officer who fired the shots.

The filing is the first time the borough has publicly named the officers, who had gone to Osagie’s Old Boalsburg Road apartment to serve a mental health warrant. Some community members, including the 3/20 Coalition advocacy group formed following Osagie’s death, have pushed for the borough to release the officers’ names for nearly two years.

Each officer previously was cleared of wrongdoing by District Attorney Bernie Cantorna following a state police investigation, saying the officers were in a “life-or-death situation,” and attempting to back away when Osagie charged at them with a knife. An internal department review also cleared the officers.

Osagie’s family contends in its lawsuit that the shooting was the result of “years of systematic failings by the State College Police Department to meaningfully implement and enforce common-sense policies and practices,” for handling encounters with individuals with mental health disabilities.

Borough attorney David MacMain pushed back against that assertion repeatedly throughout Monday’s filing.

“It is denied that there has been a ‘systemic failing’ by the Borough and SCPD to implement and enforce policies and practices to protect persons with mental health disabilities during encounters with police,” MacMain wrote. “SCPD has extensive policies, and progressive training in a number of relevant areas to include policies regarding mental health encounters and use of force.”

Since 2009, MacMain wrote, State College police have served more than 1,400 mental health warrants and thousands of other mental-health related calls, including some involving threats of violence, and none had previously ended with the use of deadly force.

Osagie was a 29-year-old Black man with a history of mental illness, including paranoid schizophrenia and Asperger Syndrome. The three officers involved are white. The state police Heritage Affairs Section said there was no evidence of racial bias involved in the shooting.

MacMain wrote that State College police had interacted with Osagie on mental health calls previously and that when he was undergoing proper treatment he was quiet and soft-spoken. 

“Sadly, like some other persons who suffer from mental illness, when Osaze was not using his required medication, was not monitored by his support system and/or cut off ties with his support system, Osaze sometimes caused a danger to himself, his family, neighbors and/or other members of the community to which SCPD officers and officers from other law enforcement agencies were called to address,” MacMain wrote.

On March 19, 2019, Osagie’s father, Sylvester, contacted police after he received text messages from his son suggesting that there would be “trouble” with the police “in a little bit” that may result in his death. He believed Osagie may have been off his medication.

The following day, after Osagie’s mental health case worker spotted him walking from Weis Market on Westerly Parkway in the direction of his apartment, Ofc. M. Jordan Pieniazek was dispatched to the residence and was soon joined by Sgt. Christopher Hill and Lt. Keith Robb. In the narrow hallway outside the apartment, Pieniazek was positioned at the door, with Hill behind him and Robb standing on the stairs nearby.

MacMain wrote that Pieniazek calmly asked Osagie to step outside the apartment and noticed Osagie was holding a serrated knife. Osagie refused to drop the knife, held it up and yelled “shoot me, kill me,” according to the filing and Pieniazek responded “No.”

Osagie momentarily moved out of view then charged into the hallway at the officers, MacMain wrote. Hill deployed his Taser, but it was ineffective at stopping Osagie. Pieniazek fatally shot Osagie while retreating backwards.

“At no time prior to Osaze’s deadly knife charge did any of the SCPD officers threaten Osaze,” MacMain wrote. “To the contrary, Officer Pieniazek spoke calmly with Osaze to try get him to cooperate with the officers so that they could get him help.”

“As determined by the Centre County District Attorney’s Office and the Pennsylvania State Police, Osaze’s death, while tragic, was a necessary act of self-defense, and a justifiable and reasonable use of force by Ofc. Pieniazek in response to Osaze charging at him and Sgt. Hill at full speed with a knife and placing the lives the officers in imminent danger.”

MacMain wrote that contrary to the lawsuit’s assertions, all of the officers on duty that day had been briefed about Osagie’s case and that those who responded had previous interactions with him. All three were well-trained in crisis intervention, he wrote, including Pieniazek, who also provided training to other officers.

“The three officers present that afternoon on March 20, 2019, combined, had over fifty (50) years of service as police officers, had extensive training and had handled thousands of similar calls without incident or complaint,” he wrote.

Countering several claims in the lawsuit, MacMain wrote that the officers did not hide their vehicles from view and did develop a plan for making contact with Osagie before going to his apartment.  Pieniazek, the filing says, knocked on the door because he was in uniform and he covered the peephole before knocking so that Osagie would be more likely to open the door and would not try to barricade himself inside or flee.

The filing also denies that Sylvester Osagie requested he be notified before officers made contact with his son. Sylvester Osagie said he was looking for his son at the same time as police.

“While the family is understandably heartbroken, the Borough is disappointed that suit has been filed despite the fact that the incident was thoroughly and fairly investigated by the Centre County District Attorney’s Office, who issued a comprehensive report finding no wrongdoing by the involved officers, and the Pennsylvania State Police – including its Heritage Affairs Unit which specifically looks for any discriminatory animus – and of both whom found that the use of deadly force – albeit unfortunate – was necessary to protect the officers from the knife attack by Osaze Osagie,” MacMain said in a statement.

Pieniazek was previously named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit. In 2014, State College settled out of court with a then-Penn State student who filed a civil rights complaint against Pieniazek and another officer. The student alleged that he was improperly detained, subject to unlawful seizure and maliciously prosecuted for observing but not participating in the downtown riot that ensued following the November 2011 firing of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

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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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