Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Anthony Holzhauer won’t be charged in the fatal shooting of a mentally ill woman in February, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray announced Thursday.
“The District Attorney’s Office has concluded that it was not unlawful for Officer Holzhauer to use deadly force in the face of what he reasonably perceived to be an attack from a knife-wielding subject,” Murray wrote in a letter to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Rodney Monroe explaining the decision. “Consequently, charges against Officer Holzhauer are not appropriate under the law.”
The decision in the killing of Janisha Fonville comes as the nation and its police departments are grappling with whether officers are too quick to use deadly force – 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.
And the Charlotte community is closely watching the case of Randall Kerrick, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man in eastern Mecklenburg in 2013. Kerrick’s voluntary manslaughter trial begins this summer. Preliminary hearings have been heated and attended by protesters.
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In Fonville’s case, civil rights activists have called for Holzhauer to be fired from the police department and had wanted him charged with murder. Adding to their consternation, Fonville is the second person Holzhauer has killed in the line of duty. In July 2012, Holzhauer shot and killed a man as the suspect grappled with another police officer. Holzhauer was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing in that case.
While Thursday’s decision clears Holzhauer criminally in Fonville’s killing, Murray and Monroe said that doesn’t address whether the officer adhered to CMPD’s policies.
At a news conference Thursday, Monroe said an internal investigation is ongoing.
“It takes a little longer because not only are we looking at it from a policy and procedure perspective, but we’re also looking at it from a training perspective to see what we can learn,” Monroe said.
Fonville, 20, died after Holzhauer shot her inside her public housing apartment north of uptown following an argument with her girlfriend, Korneisha Banks.
Banks’ sister had called 911 for help. Holzhauer and another responding officer were told outside the apartment that Fonville was mentally ill, had a weapon and might hurt herself, Banks told the Observer.
Fonville had been diagnosed with a mood disorder, depression and had a history of intentionally cutting herself. In a transcript released by the DA’s office, Banks told investigators Fonville had talked of killing other people and had cut Banks during one scuffle over a knife.
CMPD and Banks give conflicting accounts about what happened inside the home before Fonville was killed. CMPD said officers found her holding a 6- to 8-inch knife.
Police say Fonville lunged toward the officers with the knife and Holzhauer opened fire. Banks said Fonville took one step toward her, without threatening officers, before she was shot.
Banks has said the officers were in the dimly lit home for about 15 seconds before an unarmed Fonville was shot twice. She said Fonville jumped up from a living room couch with empty hands.
“It’s ridiculous,” Banks said of Murray’s decision. “It’s not right. Basically, they’re protecting their officer.”
Police recovered a knife at the scene, Holzhauer’s attorney Michael Greene has said.
The district attorney’s office said a knife that appeared to be struck by a bullet was taken in as evidence.
The Observer has requested Fonville’s autopsy, but it has not been released.
The district attorney’s office “followed what the law says,” Greene told the Observer on Thursday. “The officer was placed in fear of bodily harm.
“I think Officer Holzhauer did the best job (he could) that night,” Greene said. “It’s a tough time for him having taken a life and not something he looks at cavalierly. Unfortunately, when you attack police officers with deadly weapons, you bear the fruits of your actions.”
Paris Bey, Fonville’s cousin, said the family won’t comment on Murray’s decision.
Before Fonville’s death, Holzhauer, 27, had been involved in two shootings in the line of duty.
In 2012, another officer was struggling with a robbery suspect and yelled to Holzhauer that the suspect had a gun, according to Murray. When it became apparent the officer couldn’t control the suspect, Holzhauer fired one shot, killing the suspect, Murray 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 has said the past cases show CMPD should bring in an independent agency to investigate this time. Like many departments around the country, CMPD investigates shootings involving its officers on its own.
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 over-reliance on weapons, including Tasers.
Monroe said the department is trying to fine-tune its procedures in the wake of officer-involved killings in Charlotte and across the country. The department has produced a series of videos for the public that show the best way to navigate potentially contentious dealings with officers, including a traffic stop.
CMPD is also engaging in a series of community discussions about interactions with police. Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.