Crime & Courts

The seconds before the shots

Korneisha Banks, holds a photo of her girlfriend, Janisha Fonville, 20, who was fatally shot by a CMPD officer. Banks disputes the police account of the shooting.
Korneisha Banks, holds a photo of her girlfriend, Janisha Fonville, 20, who was fatally shot by a CMPD officer. Banks disputes the police account of the shooting. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

The day before she died, Janisha Fonville had an appointment to see a counselor. A snowstorm intervened and she missed it.

She had been diagnosed with a mood disorder and depression and was once hospitalized for intentionally cutting herself.

The next day, Feb. 18, Fonville, 20, was killed by a police officer who had been called to help her.

In the seconds before the shooting, Korneisha Banks saw her girlfriend, Janisha, rise off the couch with her hands empty; the officers reported that she held a knife.

Officer Anthony Holzhauer now faces his third shooting inquiry in his 5-year tenure with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police. Though CMPD declined to answer questions about the disputed account of the shooting, Holzhauer’s attorney said that a knife was shot out of Fonville’s hand and was recovered at the scene.

Holzhauer’s actions were justified, Michael Greene said, but he is “remorseful.”

“This is a split-second decision,” he said.

What her girlfriend recalls

This is how Banks describes the day that her girlfriend of nearly two years died:

The couple had argued much of the day, and Fonville grew more emotional than usual.

Around 9 p.m., Banks told her 16-year-old sister to call 911. Banks asked Fonville to put the knife down, but Fonville refused. Fonville then laid down on a living room couch.

According to a recording of the 911 call at about 9 p.m., a young woman tells the dispatcher that two people are fighting. It is dispatched as a domestic dispute.

Holzhauer and Officer Shon Sheffield arrived at Dillehay Courts, where in the last six months, at least 35 crimes have been reported in the vicinity, including aggravated assault, drug dealing, robbery and burglary.

Banks met the officers outside. She said she told the officers her girlfriend needed mental health treatment. She wanted the officers to take Fonville to a mental health center where Fonville had previously received help.

Banks warned them Fonville had a knife and may hurt herself.

Holzhauer, Sheffield and Banks entered the townhouse through the front door.

Banks’ infant son and sister were inside with Fonville. Her sister carried the baby upstairs as the officers came in.

The living room was dim because the lights were turned off. Lights in the adjacent kitchen and stairwell were on.

Fonville sat up on the couch when she saw the officers. Sheffield, who held a flashlight, asked Fonville if she had a weapon; she didn’t answer, Banks recalled.

Fonville jumped up and blurted out “b---h.” Banks said Fonville was upset that she had called the police.

Banks stood between the officers with Holzhauer a few feet to her right and the other officer to her left.

Fonville, standing about 10 feet in front, took one step in the direction of Banks. Holzhauer opened fire. Sheffield, who did not draw his gun, turned on the living room lights.

Holzhauer stood over Fonville’s body with his hands on head and said “Oh s--t,” Banks recalls.

Banks asked Sheffield why Holzhauer shot Fonville. “He said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. We had to defend ourselves,’” Banks recalls. “You could see the confusion in his face.

“I asked, ‘Why did you shoot her? She wasn’t trying to hurt you.’”

Holzhauer retrieved a black bag from his squad car and came back to attend to Fonville. He searched for a pulse on her neck.

Holzhauer ordered Banks to go upstairs. When about four officers arrived, they came upstairs with their guns drawn and ordered Banks and her 16-year-old sister to get on the floor. Banks said that later, an officer told her that is standard procedure at an active scene.

Banks told the Observer “I didn’t see any weapon” in Fonville’s hand before the shooting. She said she doesn’t know what happened to the knife Fonville had earlier.

Banks said the officers did not ask Fonville to drop a weapon. She said she has been consistent in retelling what she saw.

Banks now regrets that she called police. “I know she didn’t threaten (the officers),” Banks said. “He didn’t have a reason to fire. He should have done something differently.”

What the police reported

Police Chief Rodney Monroe gave a press conference the day after Fonville was shot. He said when officers arrived, Fonville was on a couch holding a 6- to 8-inch knife.

After being ordered several times to drop the knife, police said Fonville moved into a crouch, extended her arm and lunged at the officers. Holzhauer fired, and bullets struck Fonville in the hand and shoulder, Monroe said.

An autopsy found that Fonville died of a gunshot wound to the chest, said Andy Fair, a spokesman for the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office. A full autopsy report has not yet been released.

Monroe had planned to meet Fonville’s family to hear their concerns, but the family’s attorney advised them to decline the meeting.

Greene, the attorney for Holzhauer, gave an account that corroborates Monroe’s version of events.

Greene said that when Holzhauer went into the townhome he was followed by Sheffield and Banks.

He said it was dark except for a light over a stairwell. A child and a baby were on the stairs.

Holzhauer moved into a corner, Greene said. Sheffield and Banks were on his left.

Fonville, Greene said, was less than 12 feet from Holzhauer.

He saw her lying on a couch in the fetal position with both hands clutching a knife between her legs. Holzhauer unsnapped his gun holster. He ordered Fonville to drop the knife, Greene said.

Banks flipped on the living room lights, Greene said. Fonville, still holding the knife, then leaped toward Holzhauer, who was closest to her.

Holzhauer fired, and one shot struck her hand. Greene said the shot broke the knife, which he said proves Fonville had a knife when she was shot.

“If he had not acted as he did, the story would have been, ‘Why didn’t CMPD protect those people?’” Greene said.

He said it is unfair that officers face such scrutiny.

“When did it become OK for people to attack the police?” he asked. “We don’t say, ‘Why did that person come at the officer with a knife?’ We say, ‘Why did the officer use deadly force?’ We are second-guessing them for split-second decisions and Monday morning quarterbacking.”

The law gives officers broad discretion to decide when deadly force is necessary, said Michael Woody, a retired Akron, Ohio, police lieutenant who now trains police on how to deal with mentally ill suspects.

Under CMPD rules, officers are authorized to use lethal force when they believe it is reasonable and necessary to stop someone who poses an imminent threat of death or serious injury to the officer or others.

“Police are taught that the average person can traverse 21 feet and stab you before you can get your weapon and fire the gun,” Woody said.

Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and a former New York City police officer, said officers should attempt to de-escalate encounters with mentally ill suspects before resorting to force.

However, O’Donnell acknowledged, officers often face chaotic circumstances.

“These things happen in nanoseconds,” he said. “It’s a subjective judgment. You have to stand in the shoes of the officer.”

Fonville was trying to get better

Interviews with family members and others who knew Fonville suggest she struggled with her emotions. She could be loving and funny. She could be despondent.

She doted on her girlfriend’s baby and watched over kids for family and neighbors. At family gatherings, she poked fun at relatives, laughed easily and helped people connect with one another.

“She was always telling jokes, making people laugh,” said Paris Bey, her cousin. “She had so much spice.”

Fonville once worked at the Bojangles’ restaurant near Statesville Avenue and Interstate 85. She was trying to earn her GED. Acquaintances said she wanted to go to college.

Fonville had lived with her girlfriend’s family before moving last July into the sprawling Dillehay Courts public housing complex north of uptown.

Neighbors described Fonville as quiet and said she never caused problems.

But CMPD said officers had been called to her address several times for domestic disputes, an assault and an attempted suicide.

Fonville was accused of resisting a public officer in May 2012. She was charged with assault and battery in December 2010 and October 2011. The charges in each case were voluntarily dismissed.

Family members said the trouble stemmed from painful memories in Fonville’s childhood.

They would not say what happened, but said Fonville never got the help she needed. “It’s the type of thing that will stick with a female unless she gets some help,” Bey said.

Banks, her girlfriend, said Fonville was once hospitalized for a week to help stop her from cutting herself. Yet, she said, the problem persisted.

“She was trying to heal,” said Banks. “She would try to do better and make herself fully happy, but she didn’t know how. She always second-guessed herself.”

Holzhauer’s history

Before Fonville’s death, Holzhauer, 27, had been involved in shootings in the line of duty twice.

In 2012, another officer was struggling with a robbery suspect and yelled to Holzhauer that the suspect had a gun, according to Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray.

When it became apparent the officer couldn’t control the suspect, Holzhauer fired one shot, killing the suspect, Murray has said.

In 2013, officials said Holzhauer was one of several officers involved in a shootout with suspects who had fired at police. No one was injured, but Holzhauer was later awarded CMPD’s Medal of Valor.

Authorities ruled that both shootings were justified.

Fonville’s family said the past cases show CMPD should bring in an independent agency to investigate this time. Like most departments around the country, CMPD investigates shootings involving its officers.

Virginia Byrd, a neighbor who said she was Fonville’s godmother, said she questions why the officer used his gun to subdue Fonville. She was 5-foot-2 and weighed 112 pounds.

“The shoot-first-ask-questions-later doesn’t fly,” Byrd said. “There were other ways. They tried nothing else.”

Greene, Holzhauer’s attorney, said officers typically would not use a Taser in this case because the suspect was reported to have a deadly weapon.

O’Donnell, the former New York City police officer, said: “It’s a good question whether they could have used nonlethal force. That depends if (the officer) has the time and if it’s not an imminent threat of death.”

Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027

Mental health protocol

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department gives officers orders on how to handle confrontations with mentally-ill suspects based on whether the person is armed or unarmed.

If a mentally-ill suspect is armed or poses a threat to public safety:

▪ Officers should use the amount of force reasonable and necessary to protect themselves and others at the scene and to take the suspect into custody.

▪ If possible, officials should take steps to minimize the intensity and duration of the person’s resistance.

▪ Officers will report to dispatchers any level of force against a suspect. That information is relayed to paramedics. Once paramedics arrive, the officers must provide a description of the level of resistance from the suspect and the force applied.

If a mentally-ill suspect is unarmed:

▪ The first arriving officer will wait for backup before attempting to approach the person. If possible, officers will contain the person while keeping a safe distance. The objective is to gain the person’s voluntary cooperation.

▪ Officers should attempt to “talk the person down.” One officer should engage the person in conversation in a calm and non-confrontational manner.

▪ Officers should remember the person could be delusional, so statements and questions may need to be repeated several times. If helpful, the officer may enlist the assistance of a family member or mental health professional who has a rapport with the person and can aid in gaining cooperation.

Fred Clasen-Kelly

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