A safeguard on police shootings

The Observer editorial board

CMPD Chief Rodney Monroe discusses the Fonville shooting.
CMPD Chief Rodney Monroe discusses the Fonville shooting. CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

Was Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Anthony Holzhauer justified in shooting and killing 20-year-old Janisha Fonville?

We don’t really know; neither do you. The only people in a position to shed light on that question are witnesses, Holzhauer himself and investigators who probed the shooting afterward.

The better question, then, is: Can the public have confidence that a fair, independent, thorough investigation is conducted of Fonville’s shooting – and all other police shootings?

With several controversial fatal police shootings of civilians in Charlotte and nationwide recently, the public needs to feel assured that justice is served. After Fonville’s shooting, and following other police shootings in Charlotte, critics raised questions about whether the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department can be trusted to investigate itself. Even if the officer acted appropriately, there remains the matter of public perception: Without a truly independent investigation, the thinking goes, how can the public be comfortable with CMPD rendering a decision about its own officer?

It’s a fair question. It’s especially understandable in Charlotte, where a 2013 Observer study showed that a Citizens Review Board sided with police 78 out of 78 times in complaints against officers.

So we’re sympathetic to the concern. But the procedure for investigating a police shooting in Charlotte, while imperfect, has enough safeguards generally to prevent CMPD from, intentionally or unintentionally, unfairly protecting its own.

Here’s how the system works: When an officer shoots and kills someone, CMPD treats it as a homicide investigation. A team of homicide investigators responds to the scene, interviews witnesses and conducts its probe.

District Attorney Andrew Murray and his staff can go to the scene right after the shooting and listen in on witness interviews. They have full access to later interviews, which are taped. And when CMPD finishes its probe, it presents it to Murray, who reviews all the reports, photographs, transcripts of interviews and other material.

If Murray is not satisfied that CMPD’s investigation was adequate, he can call in the State Bureau of Investigation. Additionally, and importantly, the family of the victim can ask Murray to call in the SBI if they feel it’s needed, and Murray would typically do so.

Murray has an incentive to get it right, and for the public to feel like he has gotten it right, because he is elected by the voters.

Trust in police is crucial to a healthy city, and never is that tested more than when a police officer takes a life. Authorities, from the police to the district attorney to the SBI and attorney general, must ensure that a thorough investigation is conducted and that the public believes that has happened.

In Mecklenburg County, the onus for that rests on Murray. He must always cast a discerning eye on any CMPD investigation, remain independent, and communicate with the public enough that citizens feel confident in his assessment.