Fighting For Important Causes In State And Federal Courts
For Immediate Release
Contact: Andrew Shubin, Shubin Law (814) 867-3115; Kathleen Yurchak, Steinbacher, Goodall & Yurchak (814) 237-4100, and; Andrew Celli, Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, (212) 763-5000.
Osagie Family Details the State College Police Department’s Systemic Failure to Ensure That the Officer Who Shot and Killed Osaze Was Fit for Duty
Today, Osaze Osagie’s family amended their federal civil rights lawsuit to include alarming information detailing the State College Police Department’s systemic failure to ensure that M. Jordan Pieniazek, the officer who shot and killed their son on March 20, 2019, was fit for duty prior to dispatching him to lead the SCPD’s response to their son’s critical mental health incident. According to the Amended Complaint, in the months, weeks and days leading up to the shooting, SCPD Captain Christian Fishel received eyewitness information that Officer Pieniazek had been engaging in serial acts of violence, which included the threatening use of a firearm, and alcohol abuse. The Amended Complaint details that within days of Pieniazek leaving a treatment facility, an eyewitness notified Captain Fishel that Officer Pieniazek was drinking alcohol and behaving erratically and abusively. Yet Officer Pieniazek was permitted to remain in uniform, armed and on duty – and he would shoot Osaze Osagie to death just days later.
Upon learning about Officer Pieniazek’s condition at the time of the shooting, Osaze’s parents, Sylvester and Iyunolu Osagie, stated “that we now know that the SCPD’s systemic failures dealing with mental health issues went beyond our son and, tragically, included Officer Pieniazek who, himself, appears to have been in crisis and whose behavior was an unheeded cry for help.” The Osagie’s added: “The Department failed this officer and consequently, they failed our son. The Department should never have permitted him to go back in service without providing checks and balances to ensure his fitness to serve and the public’s safety.”
On November 2, 2020, the Osagie family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Borough of State College and John Doe police officer defendants who the Borough has since publicly named. The Osagie lawsuit detailed SCPD’s response to Osaze’s father’s request for assistance in safely securing help for his 29-year-old son who was in the midst of a medication-related mental health crisis and had communicated alarming suicidal threats. According to the complaint, instead of ensuring Osaze’s safety, the Borough and the SCPD violated the Constitution’s excessive force prohibition when an officer, now known to be Officer Pieniazek, repeatedly shot him point blank in the back and side. The suit also alleges that the Borough and the SCPD violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by discriminating against Mr. Osagie based upon his known mental health history.
The family’s legal team — which includes State College lawyers Kathleen Yurchak and Andrew Shubin and Andrew Celli, Earl Ward and David Berman from the New York Citybased Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel law firm – announced: “Officer 2 Pieniazek was a ticking time bomb when the SCPD assigned him to lead the response to Osaze Osagie’s mental health crisis – and at least one senior official at the SCPD knew it, by way of a firsthand, eyewitness account. On March 20, 2019, Officer Pieniazek was just days out of rehab and still engaging in frightening behavior. Armed with a badge, a uniform and a gun, he was himself a threat to public safety. It cannot have come as a surprise to anyone who knew his history that he was the one who pulled the trigger four times and killed Osaze Osagie. The Amended Complaint filed by the Osagie family today tells the real story of why Osaze died on March 20, 2019.”
The Amended Complaint alleges that the SCPD should have never permitted Pieniazek to function as part of a Critical Incident Team (“CIT”) that responds to individuals, like Osaze, who are experiencing a mental health crisis. In contravention of a fundamental and core CIT training principle limiting participation to a rigorously screened subset of officers within a department who self-select and volunteer, the SCPD gave Pieniazek, and every other officer, CIT training and “automatically deemed him fit to respond to any mental health crises, notwithstanding his known and obvious red flags.”
The Osagie family’s Amended Complaint points to Defendant Pieniazek as the “perfect example” of the logic underpinning these limitations. “Given his history of alcohol abuse and erratic and violent behavior . . .Defendant Pieniazek would never be an appropriate crisis response team member” and “was particularly ill-suited for such an intervention when he was abusing alcohol, engaging in erratic and concerning behavior, had just left a rehab facility, and was on his third day back. Despite these dangerous circumstances, the SCPD did nothing to ensure his stability or fitness for duty prior to sending him out on, and permitting him to lead their response to, a critical mental health crisis incident.”
In what appears to be an emerging public scandal, the SCPD appointed Captain Fishel to chair its Deadly Force Conduct and Procedures Review Board, the body tasked with conducting its internal investigation of the shooting. Captain Fishel also authored the Board’s Report — which did not include any references to the eyewitness’ fitness-for-duty information of which he was personally informed. In what appears to be a contradiction of the eyewitness’ accounts provided directly to Captain Fishel, the SCPD has maintained that the only prior compliant relating to Officer Pieniazek involved a dated excessive force allegation made by a college age male.
According to attorneys Yurchak and Shubin, “It’s unconscionable that the SCPD appointed Captain Fishel, a critical witness who possessed urgent and emergent fitness for- duty information, to lead its investigation and author its Report.” Yurchak and Shubin added, “a true and fair investigation would have required Captain Fishel to provide the eyewitness information to a neutral Board and an unbiased Chair. The Osagie family and the community at large had a right to know this information and the SCPD had an obligation to provide it.”