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State College defends police handling of incident that led to death of autistic man

WILLIAMSPORT — State College again has defended the use of deadly force by its police against an autistic man who charged at officers with a knife.

The borough Friday responded to an amended complaint filed in U.S. Middle District Court that stems from the March 20, 2019, fatal shooting of Osaze Osagie.

He was shot after he charged out of his apartment in Marvin Gardens on Old Boalsburg Road at officers with a knife and refused to drop it.

As in previous court documents State College says its officers are trained in crisis intervention to deal with mentally challenged individuals.

The borough also responded to allegations in the amended complaint brought about the officer who did the shooting, M. Jordan Pieniazek.

The complaint claims the police department knew Pieniazek had engaged alcohol-related in domestic violence in the past, had left a rehab facility days before the shooting and started drinking again.

The borough’s response included:

— Pieniazek was an Army veteran, had been awarded the Purple Heart and had taken part in the recovery effort at the Pentagon following the Sept. 11, 2001, attack.

— He had been on the force for 12 years during which time he was a crisis intervention team instructor and had handled countless high-stress incidents.

— In early 2019 Pieniazek voluntarily sought counseling for issues in his personal life, no concerns were raised about him being unfit for duty and he was monitored after returning that March 11.

— The results of a standard blood test given him after the shooting showed no indication of drugs or alcohol.

As in the past, the defendants point out the Centre County district attorney termed the shooting justified following an investigation that included state police and experts in ballistics, forensics, bias and use of force.

The police department says it was aware of Osagie’s mental health history because officers had assisted the family on numerous prior occasions with de-escalating often violent encounters.

His father, Sylvester Osagie, after receiving several texts, requested police help in locating his son. One of the texts stated: “God is dead in this country, and soon I hopefully will be dead also. My fast-approaching deep sleep will result from a struggle between God and evil and a battle between the citizens of the U.S. and the American government.”

This is the police version of the shooting that occurred about 2 p.m.:

Pieniazek knocked on the door and covered the peephole so Osagie would open the door and not barricade himself in the basement apartment where his roommate was.

Osagie, 29, opened the door but would not let the officers inside so Pieniazek calmly asked him to step outside.

Pieniazek noticed Osagie was concealing a knife in his right hand, drew his firearm and ordered him multiple times to drop it.

Osagie refused, went into his apartment and seconds later charged out toward Pieniazek and Sgt. Christopher Hill with the knife at shoulder level.

Hill discharged his Taser and Pieniazek fired his service weapon three to four times. Lt. Keith Robb also was present.

The borough cites the autopsy report that the Taser utilized by Hill probably would not have disabled Osagie and the first shot hit him as he was running forward with a knife in his hand.

The report also confirmed the second and third shots were fired as Pieniazek was moving away from Osagie, it says.

At no time did Osagie’s father, a Penn State administrator and professor who brought the suit on behalf of his son’s estate, tell police that his son would attempt “suicide by cop,” the borough says.

Several groups – including the 3/20 Coalition and the State College NAACP – staged events last weekend to mark the two-year anniversary of the death of Osagie, a Black man. The Centre Daily Times reported that a march and protest in downtown State College were held March 19, and a daylong festival took place a day later that organizers plan to make an annual fund-raising event that directs the money to the Osaze Osagie College Scholarship Endowment.

The estate is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages on claims that include wrongful death, excessive force, violations of the Americans with Disabilities and Rehabilitation acts, assault and battery.

Defendants are the borough, its police department, Pieniazek, Hill, Robb and Capt. Christian Fishel.

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