Shooting death prompts questions about CMPD’s tactics

Published: Apr. 4, 2015 at 2:05 AM EDT|Updated: May. 4, 2015 at 2:05 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (Fred Clasen-Kelly/The Charlotte Observer) - The fatal shooting of a mentally ill woman in February is prompting questions about how Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers handled a confrontation as they arrived at her apartment north of uptown.

Janisha Fonville, 20, died after being shot inside her public housing unit by Officer Anthony Holzhauer. He and another officer confronted her immediately after they were told by her girlfriend, outside the apartment, that Fonville was mentally ill and might hurt herself.

The girlfriend, Korneisha Banks, said the officers were in the dimly lit home for about 15 seconds before an unarmed Fonville was shot twice. Police dispute that account, saying Fonville lunged at the officers with a knife.

But the officer's use of deadly force against a diminutive woman described as unbalanced has sparked criticism from those work with the mentally ill.

"We are greatly confused and concerned that this case ended in such a needless tragedy," said Jack Register, executive director for the North Carolina chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "Ms. Fonville's partner was clear in her statements that this was a mental health issue and not an issue of violence."

Register questions why the officers did not deploy widely accepted tactics to de-escalate the confrontation and avoid the use of force.

Across the nation, law enforcement analysts say police departments are urging officers who face potentially violent encounters with the mentally ill to, if possible, keep a safe distance, speak calmly and buy time to gain the person's cooperation. A report from a prominent law enforcement group recommends police avoid overreliance on weapons, including Tasers.

CMPD is one of more than 500 police departments that participate in "Crisis Intervention Team" training, designed to help officers identify mental illness and de-escalate tense situations.

Holzhauer and Officer Shon Sheffield, who responded to the 911 call about Fonville, had not taken the voluntary 40-hour course, according to CMPD. Even without CIT training, all North Carolina officers are required to take eight hours of similar instruction before they join a police force.

CMPD won't comment on its handling of the Fonville case, citing an ongoing investigation.

But Capt. Ryan Butler said in cases involving armed or combative suspects with a mental illness, officers are authorized to use the amount of force that is reasonable to take the person into custody and to protect themselves and others.

Even when officers have received extra training for dealing with the mentally ill, Butler said unpredictable circumstances and time constraints during volatile confrontations may prevent them from using what they have learned.

"It all comes down to the circumstances," said Butler, who helps run the crisis intervention training.

Conflicting accounts

Police sometimes find themselves thrust into dual roles as law officers and de facto social workers.

Families often call police when loved ones with mental problems behave erratically. About one in 17 Americans live with a severe mental disorder such as bi-polar, schizophrenia or major depression. Many of them don't receive treatment, according to the National Association on Mental Illness.

Under Mecklenburg's crisis intervention plan, an officer who has taken the training course is called when a mental health case is identified. The officer tries to defuse the situation or sometimes asks an on-call professional counselor for help.

The system was not deployed when officers Holzhauer and Sheffield were called on Feb. 18 to the Dillehay Courts public housing complex, where Fonville lived.

She had been diagnosed with a mood disorder, depression and had a history of intentionally cutting herself.

On the night of the shooting, Fonville grabbed a knife and threatened to hurt herself and Banks, Fonville's girlfriend. Banks has said she met the police outside the couple's home and told them Fonville needed mental health treatment. She said she wanted the officers to take Fonville to a mental health center. Banks said she told them Fonville had a knife.

Banks said the officer, Holzhauer, told her that he would ask Fonville if she would be willing to go to the mental health center voluntarily.

CMPD and Banks give conflicting accounts about what happened inside the home. Banks saw Fonville jump up from a living room couch with empty hands. CMPD said officers found her holding a 6- to 8-inch knife.

Police say Fonville lunged toward the officers and Holzhauer opened fire. Banks said Fonville took one step toward her, without threatening officers, before she was shot.

A different approach?

Lucille Puckett, a Charlotte representative for the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network, said it is baffling why CMPD would not assign officers who had crisis training to handle such a call.

Once the officer was informed about Fonville's mental illness, Puckett said he should have called a mental health professional for assistance.

"He caused it to escalate quickly," Puckett said.

Matt Newton, a Charlotte attorney, said there is anger at Dillehay Courts over Fonville's death. Residents believe Holzhauer didn't need to use lethal force, Newton said.

"There were a number of points where the officer could have made a different decision," said Newton, whose brother died in an incident with police in 2012. He has filed a wrongful death suit against the city. His brother, Clay McCall, suffered from mental illness.

"People are not calling for an officer to be the judge, jury and executioner," Newton said.

But Greene, Holzhauer's attorney, said the officers had no time to negotiate with Fonville. They had only been in the home a few seconds when she charged at Holzhauer with a knife, Greene said.

Asked if Holzhauer could have asked Fonville to come outside, Greene said that was not a good option – because a teenage child and an infant were inside the home.

"This is happening in real time," Greene said. "They are Monday-morning quarterbacking, as if the officers had the same amount of time as a psychiatrist. I challenge them to talk to someone who's charging at them with a knife."

Greene said Fonville is responsible for what happened.

"If you use deadly force against an officer, you bear the consequences of your actions," he said.

Officer had little information

At least half the people fatally shot by police each year have mental health problems, says a 2013 study from the National Sheriff's Association and The Treatment Advocacy Center, a Virginia-based nonprofit that works for the mentally ill.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said that's why it is critical for police agencies to provide crisis training to dispatchers. Dispatchers can help officers by obtaining important details from 911 callers about a suspect's mental history.

A person suffering a mental breakdown may not respond to an officer's commands the same way, Wexler said.

"It's important to get that information on the front-end," he said. "The normal police approach falls short in these situations."

Wexler said some police departments require dispatchers to read a script that includes questions about mental illness. CMPD does not.

Of CMPD's 147 dispatchers, 48 have received crisis intervention training. Their training sessions last 16 hours – while officers get 40. Two dispatchers handled the Fonville call, Butler said. One had CIT training and the other did not, he said.

In the 911 recording about Fonville, the 16-year-old caller offers scant information to the dispatcher who answered. The caller seems confused by the dispatcher's questions.

That dispatcher, who did not have training, asked about weapons, drugs and alcohol in the home. But the dispatcher did not ask if Fonville had a history of mental illness.

When he arrived at Fonville's home about 9 p.m., Green said Holzhauer only knew that there had been a domestic dispute. Experts said officers consider domestic arguments high-risk incidents.

Butler, the CMPD captain, said dispatchers are taught to listen for signs a caller is describing a situation involving mental illness.

He said it is not practical, in many cases, to ask callers a long list of questions. But if a caller mentions that someone had not taken their medication, for example, Butler said a dispatcher would then likely ask follow-up questions about the medication.

'I don't want my son dead'

Police departments increasingly are forming partnerships with health agencies to deal with mentally unstable suspects. For example, Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, has a sheriff's deputy and a licensed mental health counselor go to calls involving people believed to be mentally ill.

"The biggest crime a lot of these individuals have committed is being mentally ill," said Christina Garza, a spokeswoman for the Harris County Sheriff's Office. "Some of them really don't belong in jail. You try to talk them down instead of using a Taser."

In Mecklenburg County, more than 700 CMPD officers and sheriff's deputies have received crisis intervention training since 2008.

Sarah Greene, a program administrator for Mecklenburg County's Trauma and Justice Partnerships, said the training is significant because "the police are the social workers of last resort."

Officials are creating a database that will tell them whether a mentally ill person is sent to treatment instead of jail, she said.

Sarah Greene said there are situations where police do not learn the person is suffering from mental illness until after lethal force is used.

Puckett, of the National Action Network, said Fonville's death could make families fearful of calling police. Her 19-year-old son suffers from oppositional defiant disorder, which means a pattern of uncooperative behavior. She is now reluctant to call police when his behavior becomes difficult to control.

"I don't want him to become another Janisha Fonville," Puckett said. "I don't want my son dead."