When Veronica Lynn Canter’s ex-boyfriend kicked her out of his apartment near Bulldog Stadium two years ago, she refused to leave, even when two Fresno police officers showed up.
Within five minutes, Canter, 48, would be fatally shot in a confrontation over a misdemeanor trespassing.
A high-profile, federal civil rights trial began Tuesday to determine whether Officers Douglas Cox and Edward Louchren were justified in shooting Canter in March 2014. Police contend Canter was shot after she armed herself with two knives and charged the two officers.
Lawyers for Canter’s family contend the two officers didn’t follow proper police procedure when they kicked open the door, used a stun gun on Canter and then fatally shot her after being dispatched to a call of a domestic disturbance. The lawyers also hope the case will allow them to put the department itself on trial over its history of police shootings.
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Canter’s family is seeking unspecified damages from the city of Fresno and the two officers for violation of Canter’s civil rights to be free of excessive force. They also are suing for wrongful death, contending the officers were negligent. In addition, the lawyers are seeking punitive damages if they can prove the Fresno Police Department has a custom or practice of allowing officers to shoot people without fear of being disciplined.
Lawyers for Veronica Lynn Canter’s family contend the two officers didn’t follow proper police procedure when they kicked open the door, used a stun gun on Canter and then fatally shot her.
The family is represented by San Francisco attorneys Arturo González, Wesley Overson, Robert Esposito and Sabrina Larson. The city and its two officers are represented by Santa Ana lawyer Bruce Praet, a former police officer in Southern California.
In a pretrial ruling, Magistrate Judge Erica P. Grosjean ruled in U.S. District Court that the lawyers for Canter first have to prove the two officers were negligent in shooting her before they can show evidence that police Chief Jerry Dyer allows his officers to fire at people without fear of punishment.
If Canter’s lawyers win the first phase of the trial, a key witness in the second phase will be retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. Roger Clark, who reviewed confidential Fresno police information about prior officer-involved shootings.
Clark used that information to write a report that says at least 22 Fresno police shootings were unjustified. His report contradicts Dyer’s contention that all police shootings have been justified and within policy.
In 2011, González used that information to win a $1.3 million settlement from the city in a high-profile police killing of Steven Vargas, who was unarmed but high on drugs when a police sergeant shot him inside his sport-utility vehicle on Oct. 27, 2009.
Court records say Canter was fatally shot shortly before 4 p.m. on March 7, 2014. Just 20 days before the shooting, a Fresno police officer arrested Canter for lying nearly naked on a busy street, court documents say. Police took her to a psychiatric care unit.
No one was expecting a violent confrontation.
Attorney Bruce Praet, who is representing the city of Fresno and two officers
In opening statements of the trial on Tuesday, Praet gave this account to the jury of five men and three women:
The ex-boyfriend, Dag Lindbeck, had allowed Canter to sleep at his apartment overnight. The next morning, he wanted Canter to leave because she was pestering tenants at the complex. When Lindbeck took Canter’s belongings out of the apartment, she locked him out. Lindbeck and the apartment manager then called 911.
Police dispatch learned that Canter was acting strangely, talking to herself and dancing outside the apartment before police arrived.
“She’s acting crazy and stupid,” Lindbeck told dispatch, according to Praet. The 911 callers also reported Canter could be high on drugs, but she had neither drugs nor alcohol in her system, Praet said.
Dispatch asked Lindbeck if Canter had mental issues. “Apparently,” he replied.
Cox was the first to arrive. He talked to Lindbeck, who failed to tell the officer about Canter’s psychiatric evaluation 20 days earlier. Lindbeck also didn’t tell Cox that Canter had once put an electrical cord around her throat and threatened to commit suicide.
The apartment manager said Canter once threatened to kill her boyfriend. But when the officer asked Lindbeck, he said no. Lindbeck also told Cox that there were no weapons in his apartment, other than knives in the kitchen.
At one point, Lindbeck looked through the sliding patio door and saw Canter. “She continued to act strangely, dancing around, wearing a basketball net as a skirt and yelling incoherently,” court records say.
At some point, Cox called for backup, and Louchren arrived. The officers talked to Lindbeck, who was worried that Canter would break his belongings. He told officers he would press trespassing charges.
With the apartment manager’s permission, the two officers kicked in the front door.
Praet said neither officer had their gun drawn, but Cox held a stun gun. “No one was expecting a violent confrontation,” Praet told the jury. “The officers were just going to give her a ticket for trespassing.”
Canter, however, stared at the officers, then went into the kitchen and grabbed two knives. While slashing the two blades together, she cut her wrist, Praet said.
“Drop the knives, drop the knives,” Louchren yelled. Not wanting to shoot Canter, Louchren ordered Cox to use the stun gun on her. But the stun gun had no effect. According to Praet, Canter cursed the officers while saying “You can’t kill me.”
When Canter came toward Cox with the two knives, Louchren fired five times. The officers then did CPR, but she died at the scene.
Praet told the jury that “this is not a mental health case,” but a domestic disturbance. He also said, “This is not a case of could of, would of, should of.”
But González contends any reasonable officer would have known Canter was mentally ill and distraught.
González also said the two officers violated police policy in dealing with the mentally ill. The officers are required to train every three years. Cox and Louchren had only two hours of training in 2009, five years before the shooting, court records say. In addition, instead of trying to de-escalate the situation, the officers yelled at Canter, González told the jury.
On the witness stand, Cox admitted that he never called dispatch to learn about Canter’s mental health history or to ask for a police supervisor or a mental health professional to come to the scene. “I did not suspect her to be mentally ill,” Cox testified.
He said when he tried to talk to Canter, she replied in gibberish or “words I could not understand.”
Cox testified that he and Louchren decided to confront Canter within three minutes of Louchren’s arrival.
He said the plan to burst through the front door came after he managed to slightly open the front door, only to have Canter slam it in his face. Cox declined to say whose plan it was to bust down the door – his or Louchren’s – but he testified he took off his sunglasses and put them in his patrol car “in case there was an altercation.”