Hoping to learn lessons from controversial police shootings across the country, about 200 people and a dozen police officers gathered in Charlotte to have difficult conversations about law enforcement’s use of deadly force.
The discussions at a town hall meeting in north Charlotte and a small rally in Marshall Park come as the Charlotte community and the nation are grappling with whether officers are too quick to pull their triggers – especially against minorities. Officer-involved killings in New York, North Charleston, S.C., and Ferguson, Mo., have made international headlines and sparked protests in recent months.
Charlotte cases have also caused outrage. On Thursday, the Mecklenburg District Attorney decided he wouldn’t charge the officer who fatally shot a mentally ill woman in February. In a letter explaining the decision, DA Andrew Murray said Janisha Fonville lunged at Officer Anthony Holzhauer with a knife during an encounter in north Charlotte before the officer fatally shot her.
And the Charlotte community is closely watching the case of Randall Kerrick, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer who shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man, in eastern Mecklenburg in 2013. Kerrick’s voluntary manslaughter trial is this summer. Preliminary hearings have been heated and attended by protesters.
“We keep trying to listen and hear and understand what members of the community, especially young people, are saying,” said CMPD Chief Rodney Monroe, who like the other officers was casually dressed for the event.
He spoke to a crowd in a middle school gym in the Hidden Valley community. CMPD and a local coalition of barbers sponsored the gathering on police and race relations.
Activists, including a group that gathered in Marshall Park around 5 p.m., point to a troubling trend – most of the victims of controversial officer-involved shootings are black, and many are unarmed.
But police stressed that officers don’t take the decision to pull the trigger lightly and often have to make life-or-death decisions in just seconds.
“You’re going to get a chance to see how fast these decisions happen out in the field,” said Capt. Rob Dance, who heads the North Tryon Division, which includes Hidden Valley. “It’s equally important for the officers that are up here on the panel to leave with something. … Some of the challenges I’ve seen in my time really lead back to one thing, and that’s the police and the community not communicating enough.”
Members of Fonville’s family showed up carrying a “Justice for Janisha” sign. In their first public comments after the DA’s decision not to charge Holzhauer, they said they were disappointed in the decision and want to see the department go much further in explaining its rationale for using force on someone with a mental illness, such as Fonville.
“I want police to say ‘This is how we deal with a mentally ill person,’” said Paris Bey, Fonville’s cousin. “If (the officer) knew she had a mental issue, he should have handled the situation differently, or called someone who could have.”
Bey said the family wants a separate law enforcement agency to conduct an investigation into Fonville’s death.
As part of the meeting, the police department brought a simulator like the one used to instruct officers about when to use force. Three volunteers pretended to be officers and went through scenarios where they had to decide whether to shoot the people they encountered.
In one scenario, 15-year-old Lanicholas Cohen yelled several times for a driver to get back in the car and display his hands before the man in the simulation opened fire. The teen fired 24 shots.
“It was just a quick reaction,” Lanicholas said afterward. “I’m scared myself right now. I’m just shaking. It happened so quick.”
Carolyn Fleming, who lives in Hidden Valley, began crying after her turn on the simulator. In her scenario, a man came out of a screen door firing his gun at officers before fleeing. As Fleming took aim, she almost hit an innocent bystander who was running away.
She said the town hall meeting was a good start for the police department, but her scenario was one in which force was clearly justified. She wanted to see how officers respond to more nuanced encounters.
“It was quite scary and emotional, especially when I saw the bullet hit the tree so close to the young lady (bystander),” she said. “I can see both sides. The point they’re trying to make is it’s frightening when someone’s shooting at you. But the issue at hand is what happens when we have no gun?”