Story by Sarah Ravacz 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 featuring top news and events in North Central Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.
State College – On March 20, 2019, a State College police officer shot and killed Osaz Osagei, a 29-year-old black man with a mental health crisis.
The shooting marked the first time in the history of the College State Police Department that an officer had killed someone. The community responded angrily, sparking a series of follow-up actions by State College Borough Council. One of them was the creation of the Community Oversight Board, a group of civilians charged with police oversight.
“The formation of the Independent Community Police Oversight Board is a necessary step in reshaping the relationship between State College residents and the police,” according to the ordinance passed by the borough council in August 2021.
The Community Oversight Board was given the authority to implement a civil complaint process, through which it could “receive, process, and investigate complaints about (the police department) from members of the community.”
On November 10, the council approved the process and it is expected to be open to the public in January. Here’s how it will work:
What information is collected about the complainant?
People who file complaints have the option to submit them anonymously, though they are required to provide contact information in either case. Third parties can file complaints on behalf of another person.
The Community Oversight Board Complaint Form also asks about the gender and racial/ethnic background of the person making the complaint, but this information is not required.
The form requires the complainant to provide the location, date, and time of the incident; Police officer or department employee’s name, badge number, officer/employee description, gender and racial/ethnic background.
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 images of the incident.
How are complaints submitted?
Assuming the civilian complaint process begins in January as scheduled, people will be able to file a complaint:
- By submitting the form to the Community Stewardship Board, 243 S. Allen St., State College, PA 16801
- By faxing the form to 814-231-3082
- By presenting the printed form in person to the Township Director of Equity and Inclusion, Chelovia Zulu, at the State College Municipal Building (address above)
- By emailing the form to email@example.com
- By calling 814-234-7100 (8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays) or 814-234-7150 (after business hours, weekends, and holidays; this is the non-emergency number for the police department)—and asking for the Equity Manager and Include .
What authority does the Community Oversight Board have to respond to complaints?
“We’re not going to be able to investigate,” Cynthia Young, chair of the Community Stewardship Council, told Spotlight PA. “And we won’t be able to get State College PD to do anything.”
According to the complaint process, the Community Stewardship Board “will not make decisions regarding SCPD employee misconduct.”
Although the ordinance empowered the board to “investigate” complaints, the term was not defined and the board chose not to interpret it on its own.
The complaint process is “an alternative path to filing a complaint or expressing a concern” about police department employees, according to the board. Furthermore, “CCP’s priority is to provide support to the complainant.”
All complaints submitted to the Board of Directors are confidential regardless of whether one is named or not
Reports of “child abuse, physical harm, or threats of physical harm” must be sent to the State College Police Department. Otherwise, people who file complaints with the board can choose whether to go through the police department’s complaint process as well, with the board’s support.
In addition to supporting complainants in the review process, Young said the council will also be able to track the type of complaints being filed and make recommendations for improvement to the police department and borough council.
“The only thing we really have is a bully pulpit,” she said. “…but I don’t think that’s a trifle.”
What information will be available to the public?
The Community Stewardship Board intends to maintain a database of complaints, but it is not clear what kind of access the public may have to file their complaints to the information.
Young told Spotlight PA that she doesn’t know if community members will be able to see deleted complaints, but said she assumes police will have concerns about whether complaints can be effectively redacted.
She said the council would monitor complaints and issue data trends.
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