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New Lawsuit Filing Alleges Officer Who Shot Osagie Was ‘Unfit for Duty’

The parents of Osaze Osagie alleged in a new court filing on Monday that the former State College police officer who fatally shot their son in 2019 was “mentally unstable and violent,” and was “unfit for duty” when he was assigned to go to Osagie’s apartment the day of the shooting.

An amended complaint filed in the family’s federal lawsuit against the borough and four officers also claims that a now-retired police captain had received information about former officer M. Jordan Pieniazek’s alleged “excessive drinking and domestic abuse” and did not take steps to ensure Pieniazek was fit for duty in the days leading up to the shooting.

Pieniazak allegedly engaged “in alcohol-fueled acts of domestic violence,” that “only grew worse” over the years, according to the complaint, including a 2018 incident in which an eyewitness said he “used a pistol in a threatening manner.”

According to the amended complaint filed by attorneys Andrew Shubin, Kathleen Yurchak, and Andrew Celli, Pieniazek had entered a rehabilitation facility in January 2019 and returned to work in mid-March. Days before the shooting, they allege, Pieniazek had begun drinking again and was acting erratically.

Pieniazek, along with Sgt. Christopher Hill and Lt. Keith Robb, responded to the 29-year-old Osagie’s Old Boalsburg Road apartment on the afternoon of March 20, 2019, to serve a mental health warrant. Osagie’s father, Sylvester, contacted police a day earlier for help finding his son after receiving text messages from him suggesting that there would be “trouble” with the police “in a little bit” that may result in his death. He believed Osagie, who had a history of mental illness, may have been off his medication.

While Sylvester Osagie was looking for him, Osaze Osagie’s mental health caseworker spotted him walking in the direction of his apartment and notified police.

After allegedly yelling “shoot me, kill me,” according to a previous filing in the case by the borough, Osagie held a serrated knife in his hand as he charged at the officers in the narrow basement hallway outside his apartment. Hill deployed a Taser, but it was ineffective and then Pieniazek fatally shot Osagie while retreating backward.

The Osagies have claimed the borough’s crisis intervention training model left officers ill-prepared and that Pieniazek in particular had not been given critical background information about Osaze Osagie’s situation. The borough has denied both of those claims.

The shooting occurred three days after Pieniazek returned to duty, the Osagie family’s attorneys wrote in the new filing.

The attorneys said in a statement that Pieniazek was a “ticking time bomb” when he was assigned to lead the response to Osagie’s mental health crisis.

“Armed with a badge, a uniform and a gun, he was himself a threat to public safety,” the attorneys wrote. “It cannot have come as a surprise to anyone who knew his history that he was the one who pulled the trigger four times and killed Osaze Osagie. The amended complaint filed by the Osagie family today tells the real story of why Osaze died on March 20, 2019.”

All three officers were 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. The state police Heritage Affairs Section found racial bias did not play a role in the shooting of Osagie, who was Black.

“First and most importantly, this incident was investigated by the Pennsylvania State Police, the Pennsylvania State Police Heritage Affairs Unit and the Centre County District Attorney’s Office and all have come to the same conclusion: the actions of the officers involved in this tragic incident were necessary to protect and save their lives,” borough attorney David MacMain wrote in an email.

“It is disappointing that in a case where Plaintiffs are advocating for better understanding for those that may be suffering from personal issues, that the amended complaint includes irrelevant and unfounded personal attacks on a person who has served his country in the military with honor and distinction, and his community as a police officer in which he has received numerous accolades, and protected and saved lives.”

Pieniazek, who had been a borough police officer since 2008, left the department when he made a disability claim a few months after the shooting, according to the amended complaint.

Sylvester and Iyun Osagie said in a statement “SCPD’s systemic failures dealing with mental health issues” included Pieniazek, who the lawsuit alleges “engaged in acts of domestic violence and used alcohol to a degree which affected his ability to function as a police officer,” throughout his tenure.

“The department failed this officer and consequently, they failed our son,” the Osagies said. “The department should never have permitted him to go back in service without providing checks and balances to ensure his fitness to serve and the public’s safety.”

According to the amended complaint, a family friend notified State College police in January 2019 about Pieniazek’s alleged drinking and domestic violence. Capt. Chris Fishel, the filing states, did not document it as an official complaint and Pieniazek entered rehab.

Fishel, who later chaired the internal department review that cleared the officers involved and is now a defendant in the case, “continued to receive troubling information from an eyewitness relating to Pieniazek’s mental state while he was in rehab,” the lawsuit claims.

The amended complaint alleges no action was taken to provide Pieniazek with special supervision or ensure he was fit to carry out his duties, including responding to mental health calls, after he returned to work.

Pieniazek, the attorneys wrote, was an example of the failings of the department’s crisis response model, which provides training to all officers and deems them fit to respond, rather than a screened subset of officers who have volunteered.

The attorneys wrote that Pieniazek’s “known and obvious red flags,” meant he was “particularly ill-suited for crisis intervention.”

After the shooting, a witness contacted Fishel to express “concern regarding… Pieniazek’s increasingly dangerous behavior,” according to the amended complaint. Fishel allegedly told the witness not to take any action, because it would “complicate things.”

The internal review board’s report, which was written by Fishel, contained no witness information related to Pieniazek. The report documents one use-of-force complaint against Pieniazek that did not involve injury and was deemed unfounded.

Shubin and Yurchak, the Osagie family attorneys, said in a statement that it was “unconscionable” that Fishel — who retired in September 2020 after 29 years with the department — was appointed to chair the internal review when he was a witness with information about Pieniazek’s fitness for duty.

“A true and fair investigation would have required Captain Fishel to provide the eyewitness information to a neutral board and an unbiased chair,” Shubin and Yurchak wrote. “The Osagie family and the community at large had a right to know this information and the SCPD had an obligation to provide it.”

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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