The new civil complaints procedure, due to be operational in January, was sparked by outrage following the March 2019 police killing of Osaze Osagie.
By Sarah Rafacz of Spotlight PA State College
A version of this story first appeared in Talk of the Town, a weekly newsletter from Spotlight PA’s State College Regional Office covering the top news and events in north-central Pennsylvania. Sign up here free of charge.
On March 20, 2019, a State College police officer shot and killed Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old black man who was going through a mental health crisis.
The shooting marked the first time in the history of the State College Police Department that an officer killed someone. The community responded with outrage, triggering a series of follow-up actions by the State College Borough Council. One was the creation of the Community Oversight Board, a group of civilians tasked with overseeing the police force.
“The formation of the Independent Community Police Oversight Board is a necessary step to reshape the relationship of state college residents with the police,” reads the ordinance passed by the county council in August 2021.
The Community Oversight Board was given powers to operate a civil grievance process through which it could “receive, process and investigate grievances about the[police department]from members of the community.”
On November 10, the board approved this process and it is expected to open to the public in January. Here’s how it will work:
What information is collected about the person filing the complaint?
People filing complaints have the option to submit them anonymously, although they are asked to provide contact information in all cases. Third parties may submit complaints on behalf of another person.
The Community Oversight Board grievance form also asks for the gender and racial/ethnic background of the person filing the grievance, but this information is not required.
The form asks the complainant to provide the place, date and time of the incident; the police officer’s or department officer’s name, their badge number, a description of the officer/officer, and their gender and race/ethnicity.
In addition to a full description of the incident, complainants can also provide the names and contact information of witnesses and any available audio, video, or photo recordings of the incident.
How are complaints submitted?
Assuming the civil grievance process goes live as planned in January, people can file a grievance:
- By submitting the form to the Community Oversight Board, 243 S. Allen St., State College, PA 16801
- By faxing the form to 814-231-3082
- By handing in the printed form to Chiluvya Zulu, District Director of Justice and Inclusion, at the State College Municipal Building (address above).
- By emailing the form to [email protected]
- Call 814-234-7100 (8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays) or 814-234-7150 (out of hours, weekends, and holidays; this is the police department’s non-emergency number) — and ask for the Director of Equity and Recording.
What powers does the Community Oversight Board have to respond to complaints?
“We will not be able to investigate,” Cynthia Young, the chair of the Community Oversight Board, told Spotlight PA. “And we won’t be able to get State College PD to do anything.”
According to the grievance procedure, the Community Oversight Board will “find no wrongdoing by SCPD staff.”
Although the regulation empowered the board to “investigate” complaints, the term was not defined and the board chose not to interpret it itself.
The complaints procedure is “an alternative way to make a complaint or raise a concern” about police department employees, according to the board. Furthermore, “the priority of the CCP is to assist the complainant.”
All complaints submitted to the Board will be treated confidentially, regardless of whether anyone reveals their name
Reports of “child abuse, physical harm or threat of physical harm” must be referred to the State College Police Department. Otherwise, persons filing complaints with the Chamber may choose to also go through the police department’s complaints process, with the Chamber’s assistance.
In addition to assisting complainants in the review process, Young said the board will also be able to track the types of complaints filed and make recommendations to the police department and city council for improvement.
“The only thing we really have is the bully pulpit,” she said. “…but I don’t think that’s irrelevant.”
What information is made available to the public?
The Community Oversight Board intends to maintain a complaints database, but it is not clear what type of access the public might have to complaints information.
Young told Spotlight PA that she didn’t know if community members could see redacted complaints, but said she expected police would have concerns about whether the complaints could be effectively redacted.
She said the board will monitor complaints and release data trends.
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