On Aug. 16, the State College Borough Council unanimously approved an ordinance establishing a Community Oversight Board for the State College Police Department after a year of planning and discussion. But, the process is far from over.
“In my time as a voting member, this issue is one of, if not the most important vote I have ever been a part of,” Council President Jesse Barlow said. “But, it’s been a long journey to reach this point.”
Though the idea for a COB has been discussed since 2016, according to Barlow, the proposal was granted last summer in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and more locally, Osaze Osagie in 2019.
Floyd was a Black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on Memorial Day and whose death sparked nationwide protests.
Osagie, a 29-year-old Black man, was killed by a State College police officer on March 20, 2019, when three officers arrived at his apartment to serve a mental health warrant.
Osagie, who had autism and a history of schizophrenia, allegedly ran at the officers with a knife. After an unsuccessful attempt to deploy a Taser on him, he was allegedly shot by Officer M. Jordan Pieniazek.
The three officers involved in the shooting have not been charged.
Sylvester Osagie, his father, filed a lawsuit in November 2020 against the borough of State College, and Judge Matthew W. Brann of the U.S. Middle District Court of Pennsylvania set a long-term trial date for 2022.
The case may be ready for trial in approximately 729 days, according to Judge Brann’s case management plan. This puts the suggested date for trial in November 2022, two years after the lawsuit was filed.
“Even though the pressure to enact change has become more prevalent with the action of groups like the 3/20 Coalition, that’s not the only reason we are doing this,” Barlow said. “This has been necessary long before [Osagie] was killed. It’s just that now we have found the political will to do so.”
Though plans were formalized in December when the Ad Hoc Community Board Study Committee was appointed to present its findings to council, by the beginning of this year, the council began discussing the potential of a COB over the course of eight months, according to council member Deanna Behring.
The establishment of the COB, which becomes law on Tuesday, will be only the third of its kind in the state, according to the ad hoc committee.
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“It is challenging knowing that we are in completely new territory,” Behring said. “What’s different in this case is that we did the work. We made sure to take all the time needed to get it right.”
The COB will feature nine council-appointed members from all areas of the community who will follow a “monitor model approach,” the council said.
The approach will allow the COB to “receive, process and investigate complaints about the department from members of the community through a Civilian Complaint Process,” according to the ordinance.
“We ultimately felt that the [monitor model] could help improve transparency within our police force but also help rebuild trust within the community,” Behring said. “We can’t keep doing the same things we have always done and expect a better outcome. We needed to try something different.”
Barlow said he believes the selection of the monitor model was “necessary” due to the impact the board could have when processing complaints of police misconduct, investigating closed cases and reviewing procedural and recommended changes.
“What people misunderstand is that we are not trying to prevent the police from doing their job,” Behring said. “Instead, the COB will be there to monitor the function of police procedure and recommend solutions to problems that they see within.”
A resolution last summer to commit to creating the COB also approved the establishment of a borough Department of Equity and Inclusion. Recruitment for a director of the new department has begun immediately, according to Behring.
“Because the COB members will be so involved with the police in this area, there must be some knowledge and understanding of what the police actually do,” Barlow said.
Members of the COB will undergo numerous training sessions in both policing and community concerns, but it will be the duty of the COB and its board coordinator to select the specified curriculum they choose to study.
Council member Theresa Lafer said the council is searching for a wide range of applicants to apply.
“The membership is intended to reflect the diversity of the community while also selecting individuals who really understand the role of systemic racism in society,” Lafer said.
Lafer also noted there must be an understanding of the stresses on a police department.
“We are not looking for people to descend on the police,” Lafer said.
Board members will serve three-year terms and can be reappointed three times before stepping down. They will be able to serve again after three years, according to Barlow. The Borough Council will have the power to remove members for a multitude of reasons — failure to remain impartial or not completing mandatory training, for example.
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Other prospective candidates include not only State College residents but also Penn State students who live in the police service area, Lafer said.
Tierra Williams, co-leader of State College’s 3/20 Coalition and candidate for Ferguson Township supervisor, said the 3/20 Coalition is “actively recruiting” candidates to apply.
“We are not publicizing the names of our candidates because of what some in this community think of us,” Williams said. “Our reputation brings talk — good and bad — and we want these candidates to be selected individually and not through accusations.”
The full board and coordinator are expected to be announced in October, according to Barlow.
Another aspect of the ordinance discussed the use of critical race theory as part of the training COB members would receive.
According to the New York Times, critical race theory argues “historical patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other modern institutions and that the legacies of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow still create an uneven playing field for Black people and other people of color.”
Mayor Ron Filippelli chose not to sign the ordinance after it was passed unanimously by all council members due to critical race theory, calling it a “contested theory.”
“The mayor felt very strongly about that one small aspect of the eight-page ordinance, however, there were four lawyers on the ad hoc committee that approved of the training, including another historian,” Barlow said.
Barlow said while he does not want to discredit the mayor who worked as a historian for 40 years, he said he believes the committee needs to “understand the historical role of race in this country.”
“This is something the community wanted and that his own council wanted,” Williams said. “For [Mayor Filippelli] to base his reasoning not to sign on critical race theory doesn’t make any sense. It just shows what legacy he actually wants to leave.”
Critical race theory is mentioned once in the 62-page report from the ad hoc committee.
Williams said while significant strides have been made with the COB, just because the council members voted for the establishment of a COB “does not mean [the council] will align with the 3/20 Coalition's beliefs.”
“Last summer when we made our list of demands, they put our demands into the resolution,” Williams said. “We know we have a position in this community, but we also know we can’t rely on the council to fulfill all of the goals we want accomplished.”
Williams said she knows “all too well” the complications that come with political agendas.
“People in this community think our sole goal is only to disrupt,” Williams said. “What we really want is to continue making permanent change, and that means never stepping off the brake.”
Other training elements required under the ordinance for COB members to participate include the Citizens Police Academy, information on civil rights law, the Fourth Amendment, implicit bias and department training practices.
“There are a lot of little things that can make people of the community and the [SCPD] less responsible — microaggressions being one of them,” Lafer said. “We want this COB to listen to people who feel that rather than being served by our [SCPD], they have somehow been ignored.”
Lafer said she believes the problem is within State College as a whole as well.
“It’s our businesses, teachers, schools — everyone needs to work to make life better for minorities of any kind in this town,” Lafer said. “This is the first step, and I think the commitment we have had to this issue over the past year tells the community that we're just getting started.”
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