Half the time it takes to read this sentence aloud — four seconds — is the time a Lancaster city police officer had to decide how to respond to a man charging at him with a knife.
In those brief moments, the officer had to decide whether to stand his ground or run, defend himself with his firearm or try another, less-lethal tactic.
That officer, who shot and killed Ricardo Muñoz on Sept. 13 after responding to a domestic disturbance call, acted appropriately and will not face any charges, Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams said Wednesday.
“The officer had no time or opportunity to do anything but run for his life and only resorted to lethal force when he confirmed an imminent threat to his life remained,” Adams said during a news conference.
Adams said “a mere four seconds” passed from when Muñoz appeared in the doorway of his mother's home on Laurel Street in the city’s southwest to when the officer began shooting. Muñoz was about seven feet away, possibly closer, when the officer started shooting. The officer fired four shots, all of which struck Muñoz.
“This situation simply does not call for de-escalation tactics or less-than-lethal forces, such as a Taser,” Adams said.
Nor could the officer be expected to attempt to disable Munoz by shooting him in the leg or another part of his body, she said. Officers are trained to shoot at center mass — the torso — “to meet deadly force with deadly force until the threat is neutralized.”
Munoz’s family members and attorneys, who are conducting their own investigation, criticized the DA’s conclusion.
“We called for help. We didn’t call for bullets,” Ricardo's sister Rulennis Muñoz said after the news conference.
The family was informed of the DA’s finding on Wednesday morning before it was announced to the public.
“The district attorney’s investigation raises more questions than it answers,” said Michael Perna, a family attorney. “Ricardo was experiencing a medical crisis, and his family sought professional intervention, so why didn’t Crisis Intervention do its job?”
Muñoz’s family said that on Sept. 13 they were calling to get help for Muñoz, who had a history of mental illness.
On that day, one of Ricardo’s sisters, Rulennis Muñoz, called a crisis intervention center in Lebanon County, which the family said Ricardo had previously interacted with. While Rulennis was making that call, Ricardo’s other sister, Deborah Muñoz, called 911.
The 911 call was played at the district attorney’s news conference.
On that call, Deborah Muñoz told the operator that the family needed help for Ricardo. She told the operator that her brother had schizophrenia and was bipolar, that he was being very aggressive, had punched the inside of a car and was trying to break into his mother's home.
Deborah Muñoz made the call from her house, located on the same street as her mother’s house, where Ricardo Muñoz also lived.
Those details were relayed to the officer, along with Ricardo Muñoz’s name and the fact that he had some summary offense-level warrants.
The call to 911 required a police response, Adams said, saying questions of whether mental health professionals should have been dispatched as well were for other agencies to decide. Her office’s investigation was focused solely on whether the officer’s use of force was justified, Adams said.
The city police department is conducting a separate investigation into whether departmental policies were followed.
That will take time, Mayor Danene Sorace said Wednesday, but when complete, it will be made public.
Sorace said she’s focused on how to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.
Police, she said, have “shared their desire for the city to invest in a crisis intervention co-responder model in tandem with the police social worker to de-escalate crises, link mental health consumers with community resources, and provide better outcomes for all involved. This needs to be a priority in our work going forward — both in the city budget and in conversation with our partners at the county who operate crisis intervention.”
Sorace, too, stressed there was no time for de-escalation in Muñoz’s shooting.
“However, I want to be clear that based on the DA’s investigation, this all transpired in four seconds and there was not an opportunity to de-escalate,” she said in a statement.
During the district attorney’s news conference the officer’s body camera video was shown. While it played, Adams pointed out that Muñoz charged at the officer while holding a “hunting-style knife” that was 9 inches long with a 5-inch blade.
While the video of the shooting was released by police on Sept. 13, the version played on Wednesday showed the officer’s movements from the time he exited his patrol car to when he started shooting.
Steven M. Levin, another Muñoz family attorney, said in a statement that the public and the Muñoz family still have not seen the complete video, specifically video captured by the officer’s body camera after the shooting — which presumably would show the officer’s reaction as well as the actions of several additional officers who arrived within minutes.
The district attorney’s office has declined to release further information it has than what it showed at the news conference.
Lives forever changed
Adams and Sorace expressed sympathy for Muñoz’s family.
“Their lives are changed forever. We offer our condolences to the family during this difficult time,” Adams said.
Said Sorace: “Our community experienced a tragedy with the death of Ricardo Munoz. Many have been impacted, but none like the Munoz family.”
At the time he was killed, Muñoz was awaiting trial on charges of aggravated assault after stabbing four people with a knife on North Queen Street in March 2019. His family said he acted in self-defense after he was assaulted and had his video game stolen by the attackers. They also said the charges were going to be dropped because an investigation showed that the alleged victims had lied about the circumstances.
Adams, however, said Muñoz was expected to plead guilty in the case.
Adams declined to release the officer’s name, saying the shooting was justified and citing concern for his safety, noting the sometimes angry and violent protests that took place after the shooting.
Adams said she hoped any reaction to her office’s conclusion that the shooting was justified would be peaceful and not destructive.