Final Public Input Meeting On State College Community Oversight Board For Police Department Turns Heated
The final special public input meeting on the planned Community Oversight Board for the State College Police Department on Wednesday night was marked by shouting, interruptions, name-calling, and off-topic comments.
After more than a year of discussion and debate, council is expected to adopt an ordinance establishing the board in August. During the course of numerous public meetings where the issue was discussed, there had been little if any opposition to the board itself, with most of the debate surrounding its powers and membership.
The first special meeting dedicated solely to public input on the board held in June lasted only about a half-hour, with community members addressing specific points of the draft ordinance.
But Borough Council President Jesse Barlow seemed to anticipate Wednesday night would be different, warning the crowded council chambers that comments should solely address the draft ordinance and saying that “some misleading statements have been circulating,” in advance of the meeting.
Leading up to the meeting, Centre County GOP Chair Kris Eng distributed a message to members urging them to attend.
“Throughout all of Centre County, the far left is systematical [sic] and intentionally stealing the Centre County we know and love,” the message said. “They have sent [sic] their sights on ALL of Centre County, so this is EVERYONE’s concern.”
The message went on to state that proponents of the COB “are not freedom-loving people,” adding that she realizes “many do not like coming to State College” but that they “need to send a collective message to The 3/20 Coalition,” the advocacy formed following the fatal police shooting of Osaze Osagie in 2019.
The coalition, which has long advocated for a COB, was one of several detours taken by opponents of the board, along with criticisms of police defunding (State College has not defunded its police department) and Critical Race Theory (which is mentioned as a training recommendation in an ad hoc study committee’s report but not in the ordinance).
“If the COB truly builds greater trust and a stronger community, then this is good,” Harris Township resident Chris Potalivo said. “Regardless it is now abundantly clear that the 3/20 Coalition do not want a COB to better the community but rather to radically change our police.”
Barlow stopped Potalivo at that point, saying the coalition is not in the ordinance and admonishing him to stay on topic.
After Potalivo referenced a coalition member’s previous remarks, Barlow told him he could refute the points made but that the ordinance is not about the coalition. Then things devolved into a shouting match.
“You know, it’s clear that you are already biased, sir. You are,” Potalivo said, his voice rising as Barlow tried to interject. “The 3/20 group is predicated on a lie in this community, that Osagie was murdered. He wasn’t murdered. Do you firmly believe in your soul that our police are murderers?”
As Barlow attempted to regain control, Potalivo continued shouting as he walked away from the podium that he was “tired of being silent,” calling the coalition a “nefarious group” and a “hate group.”
Potalivo then shouted that “this is supposed to be an open forum!” The normally soft-spoken Barlow shouted back, “No, it is not an open forum! It is not an open forum.”
Barlow pointed out that during regular council meetings, the public can comment on virtually any issue but that the special meeting was designated solely for comment on the ordinance.
“We feel really uncomfortable,” one audience member said after Potalivo’s comments.
“You should,” Potalivo replied.
“I’m running this meeting, not you,” Barlow said. “This is exactly what I did not want this meeting to become. This is a meeting about a specific ordinance.”
Barlow first had to issue the warning when Dick Anderson, a longtime Penn State football assistant coach under Joe Paterno, made remarks about “riots instigated by Black Lives Matter and Antifa,” defunding of police and Critical Race Theory, Barlow told him to stay on the topic of the ordinance, though in a far less contentious exchange.
After Anderson concluded his remarks that included mention of his Black travelmate as a player, Dave Robinson, and the “real racism” they saw traveling in the South in the 1960s, he was met with applause. “Please don’t do that. This isn’t a football game,” Barlow said.
Divine Lipscomb, a Democratic nominee for borough council, took a unifying tone during his remarks, though was interrupted when he said, “We got here because a member of our community has died, whether we say he was murdered, whether we say it was justified.”
“We all want the same thing,” Lipscomb said. “We want to be safe. We want our police to make us feel safe because they are our neighbors. They are our community members. If I don’t feel safe when being approached by a community member, what’s the purpose? If we need a board to oversee the behaviors of our fellow community members, that already tells us we have a problem. So how do we address this problem? We find collective ways to discuss, to investigate, and to mitigate these problems so we don’t have to be in this place again.”
For much of the meeting, both proponents and critics kept their remarks on topic, addressing specific issues in the ordinance.
Though the idea for a COB in State College has been around since 2016, it was set into motion last summer following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a renewed spotlight on Osagie’s death. An ad hoc study committee was appointed in the fall and presented its recommendations to council in December.
As stipulated in the draft ordinance published in June, the COB would have auditing, monitoring, and data analysis functions, as well as some investigative ability. It would have a civilian complaint process, have a staff member assigned to the board sit in on internal affairs investigations and could commission an independent investigation of closed cases involving use of force resulting in injury or death “when questions persist even after the auditing and monitoring functions have been completed.” Such an investigation could only begin after any litigation has concluded and “will be conducted primarily for the purpose of making policy recommendations.”
It doesn’t, however, have the power to discipline officers or supersede the department’s Internal Affairs Section procedures for investigating allegations of officer misconduct. It can’t override existing authorities of council, the police chief, or borough manager, and its reports, recommendations, and findings would not be binding on the borough.
Several coalition members said on Wednesday they and other community members have been there throughout the entire process to debate and advocate for specific aspects of the COB.
“I hope it does not escape the attention of folks that those of us who have been in the rooms here pushing for this oversight board and pushing for it for the protection and safety of marginalized community members, as well as the proper function of the police department, are coming with specific, pointed asks and requests for this board,” coalition member Geoffrey Landers-Nolan said. “We are not simply here fear-mongering or arguing against something that has been in motion for a year.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, several proponents of the COB noted the absence of an executive director position in the ordinance. The study committee recommended that an executive director dedicated to COB, which accounted for the majority of the $165,000 allocated for the board in the borough’s 2021 budget. Instead, the draft ordinance references a coordinator, who would be a borough staff member assigned to the board.
“The board cannot be considered independent if the coordinator is someone who works for the borough in another capacity,” 3/20 Coalition Secretary Melanie Morrison said.
Some speakers urged the borough to make funding for the COB permanent (it’s funded out of reserves for 2021). With the draft ordinance calling for one Penn State student on the nine-member board, others said it should have more student representation.
The ordinance calls for a person with knowledge of law enforcement to serve on the board, but no one who has worked in law enforcement for the past three years. A few speakers said it should have no former officers at all, while two others said if it did have a former law enforcement employee, it should also have a formerly incarcerated individual.
Critics, meanwhile, questioned the use of taxpayer funding for “another layer of bureaucracy,” as one speaker put it. He said council is the community oversight board because its members are elected by the community.
Kris Hopkins, a former State College police officer, said someone with knowledge of law enforcement is critical and that three years is enough time to be out of policing.
“The police officers that we are talking about of State College do not have freedom of speech,” Hopkins said. “They just don’t. So they are already at a liability in defending themselves.”
The draft ordinance contains a provision for the board to be reviewed after two years. Borough resident Susan Rogacs said she hopes council will discontinue the board after that.
“I know the neighbors in the neighborhood I live in do not want this oversight board to have any power,” she said. “We consider them an unelected group. I hope there’s fairness when they’re appointed to this. I believe it’s redundant. I hope when you find after two years that this board was unnecessary, that it was an unnecessary expensive venture, that it will be stopped and not continued for decades and decades.”
Ross Cooper, a former Centre County assistant district attorney and FBI agent, said he supports the board but that it must be representative of the entire community. He added that there should be background checks of potential members to ensure they are not biased for or against the police department.
“No one should be placed on the board or allowed to continue to serve on the board if it becomes apparent that this board member harbors a bias or prejudice whether for or against State College law enforcement officials,” he said.
It wasn’t until near the end of the nearly two-hour meeting that the mood became contentious again. When Tierra Williams, 3/20 Coalition chair and a candidate for Ferguson Township supervisor, began her remarks by saying Osagie was murdered, she was interrupted with shouted objections.
She started over, again saying Osagie was murdered as she attempted to explain the coalition’s advocacy for the COB. Again she was met with objections.
“You will not disrespect me,” she said. “That is not how this is going to work. I sat silently for everybody’s speech. I sat silently. You will not disrespect me. Reclaiming my time. They will not disrespect me.”
A number of opponents of the COB walked out after that.
Williams also responded to Potalivo’s earlier remark calling the coalition a “hate group.”
“The only thing the 3/20 Coalition hates is white supremacy,” she said.
Ezra Nanes, the presumptive next mayor of State College, derided the “verbal attacks” that occurred during the meeting. He also stressed his belief that the COB is necessary for having a strong relationship between the police and the community.
“As a husband, father of two young girls, a professional who works in this community, I think that the Community Oversight Board is incredibly important and I want to express the urgency that we should feel in passing this ordinance,” Nanes said. “The growth of this community depends on having a strong and positive relationship with our police. There is a history of racial inequity and racial bias in the country and in policing and this board will address that.”
State College Borough Council meets again at 7 p.m. on Monday. The COB is not on the agenda for the meeting but is scheduled for discussion at an August 9 work session. Council is expected to vote on the ordinance establishing the COB at its Aug. 16 meeting.
Assuming the ordinance is approved, it will go into effect on October 1.
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