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Why, even in a small Pa. college town, Black people distrust police | Opinion

Racial justice in policing is needed everywhere, not just big cities.

Old Main on the Penn State University campus in State College, Pa.
Old Main on the Penn State University campus in State College, Pa.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Last year, our community of State College, Pa., confronted what many towns and cities are grappling with in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

On March 20, 2019, Penn State welcomed civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson, who spoke passionately about a future where Black Americans no longer live with a presumption of being guilty and dangerous. Just hours earlier and a few miles away, an officer shot and killed a Black man with schizophrenia, Osaze Osagie. His father had called police for help, concerned his 29-year-old son was suicidal. It was a stark reminder of how far even progressive communities fall short of the ideals they ostensibly champion.

This police killing, like most of the thousand-plus each year in the U.S., never made national headlines. It was too messy — no video captured the incident, and police stressed that Osagie was armed.

According to police who visited Osagie’s apartment after obtaining a mental health warrant, he answered the door with a knife, spoke briefly, and charged them. Allegedly, the only way to stop him was lethal force. An investigation found that he was tasered and shot multiple times — including twice in the back. Local officials responded with a common refrain: the shooting was sad and tragic, but justified.

For some, the shooting was an aberration for a peaceful college town like State College. But for Black residents, it was especially distressing. Many already felt isolated and unwelcomed in a predominantly white town. At the university’s main campus, for example, only eight Black women are full professors.

Osagie was beloved and well-known locally. After receiving care for his mental illness in a specialized facility, he had begun to live independently. He was killed by police when his family was just trying to protect him.

The loss of another Black life prompted little change in the year following the incident. Such inaction often plays out in local communities, resulting in the frustration and anger we’ve seen erupt at recent protests. As long as the status quo remains, it is unrealistic to expect people of color — or families of the mentally ill — to overcome their distrust for police.

In State College and elsewhere, three obstacles have stood in the way of reform and eroded trust.

First, policing suffers from an accountability vacuum, which stems from a lack of transparency. What if no video captured the murder of George Floyd? It is easy to imagine officers claiming that lethal force was necessary and, with no public video to suggest otherwise, avoiding sanctions.

In the Osagie case, there were no witnesses or video to corroborate officers’ account. The State College Police Department was considering body cameras at the time of the shooting but had yet to implement them. Also, the officers have remained anonymous, making it impossible for the public to examine their records for excessive force or bias. Even if their names had been public, Pennsylvania law protects police disciplinary records from disclosure.

Second, when a controversial shooting occurs, local officials often rush to justify tactics rather than fix them. In State College, the district attorney and police department both released reports claiming the shooting of Osagie was justified. The department emphasized that its officers’ actions “were consistent with [its] policies and procedures.” But the vital question is whether the right policies were in place.

After Ferguson, Mo., the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) issued recommendations on how to avoid lethal force against potentially violent suspects with knives and/or mental illness. These tactics have saved lives in other countries like the U.K. — and could have saved Osagie’s life — yet many U.S. jurisdictions have failed to adopt them.

Third, too often officials respond with empty action after a police shooting. State College paid $60,000 for a review of its policies by the International Association of Chiefs of Police — hardly an organization committed to the reforms necessary to curb police killings. In fact, this organization denounced the very recommendations made by PERF that could have saved Osagie.

Floyd’s killing has spurred many communities to reexamine policing. That includes State College, where officials recently have taken promising initial steps to address broken policies. But for too long, inaction has been the norm as the number of Black (and other) lives killed has mounted. Now more than ever, sustained pressure is needed to turn protest into policy that results in systemic change.

Eleanor Brown is a professor of law and international affairs and a senior scientist in the Rock Ethics Institute at Pennsylvania State University. Ben Jones is the assistant director of the Rock Ethics Institute at Pennsylvania State University.