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Lancaster DA takes lead in fatal police shooting investigation; here's a look at past reviews

Lancaster city shooting scene

Police stand guard over the scene where a Lancaster city officer shot and killed a knife-wielding man in the 300 block of Laurel Street on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. The body of Ricardo Munoz is under the white tent.

When a 27-year-old man was fatally shot by a Lancaster police officer last Sunday afternoon, it immediately set into motion a two-track review of the incident, with one focused on determining whether the use of deadly force was justified, and the other on whether the officer followed department policy throughout the incident.

Soon after the shooting, as Ricardo Muñoz’s body lay on the sidewalk near his parents’ home on Laurel Street, the detective division under the oversight of Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams took over the scene from the Lancaster Bureau of Police. The detectives took four hours to gather evidence for their investigation, according to Brett Hambright, agency spokesperson. Only after they finished was Muñoz’s body taken by the county coroner for autopsy.

Adams will review the detectives’ work before issuing a finding that the officer’s use of force was justified or not, and recommend criminal prosecution if the officer is found to have acted improperly, Hambright said in an email Tuesday.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association’s best practices recommend that an independent agency, “a law enforcement agency independent from the agency involved in the shooting,” should be called in as soon as the crime scene is secured to take over the investigation. The independent investigators should be the ones to process the scene, secure any firearms that were used, conduct interviews and take photographs among taking other steps, the recommendations state.

That’s exactly the process that was started last Sunday. In the Muñoz case, a separate review of the officer’s actions is being undertaken by the Lancaster Police Bureau, a practice that has become standard at police departments across the county, according to Liana Perez, director of operations at the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

The investigations are independent of one another, Perez said. The officer could be criminally cleared, but if it is found that he did not follow all of the training and protocols set by the department, he could be disciplined or fired, she said. And vice versa.

“It’s basically an internal review if everything was done according to our policies, did it follow procedure?” Lt. Bill Hickey, police spokesperson, said. “We do that with any use of force, that type of multiple levels of scrutiny.”

While Adams is saying little about the Muñoz shooting as the investigation continues, insight into how she will evaluate the case can be gleaned from past comments by her predecessor.

“You’re using deadly force, do you believe it is necessary to save the life of another or prevent them from not only being killed, but seriously bodily injured? That’s the standard,” former DA Craig Steadman said during a press conference in 2018. “And (I’m) not doing an analysis or a legal determination of whether everything was handled perfectly by everybody.”

Since 2008, there have been 17 county police or state police shootings in the county, 10 of which were fatal. To date, the DA’s office has determined that 16 of the 17 shootings were justified -- Muñoz’s case is still being investigated.

The time it takes from opening an investigation into a police shooting to when a determination is made can vary significantly. Of the 16 investigations in the past decade, one took over six months, five took over 2 months, and about four were resolved within two weeks.

An outlier is a 2008 fatal shooting case in which Stedman determined within one day that it was “absolutely justified” for East Hempfield Township police Sgt. Brian Nice to have fatally shot Jerry Grant, 65, as he walked down his driveway pointing a revolver at the officer’s chest.

The DA’s role as the single investigating agency for determining whether the shooting was justified is a relatively new procedure in Lancaster County.

Prior to 2017, the responding police department, often with the assistance of detectives from the DA’s office, co-investigated fatal shootings, Hambright said in an email Friday. That changed with the fatal shooting of Jose Efrain Rodriguez, 18, by Lancaster city police.

Rodriguez died after two confrontations with multiple police officers in the area of South Duke, North and Howard streets. According to Stedman, Rodriguez pulled his gun and shot at officers. Rodriguez was shot in the front of his right thigh, his abdomen, his left ankle and his back, according to the autopsy report. He continued to resist police who tried to handcuff him, Stedman said, and he died later that morning at the hospital.

County detectives took control of the crime scene in the immediate wake of the shooting, then conducted interviews with witnesses, completed forensics work and maintained control over all of the evidence until everything was turned over to Stedman.

In the case of Rodriguez’s death in 2017, the investigation took three months.

“It took four weeks for most of the investigative reports to come back, it took five weeks for us to get ballistic evidence back from the crime scene and that was after a rush and it took seven weeks for me to get the final autopsy report from the coroner’s office,” Steadman said at the time. He found the officer’s use of force to be justified.

In recent fatal shooting reviews, the DA’s office held press conferences to explain to the public what was found in the course of the investigations. Videos and photos of the scene, transcripts of 911 calls and other materials have also been released to the public after the investigation is completed.

On Sunday, Lancaster police released about a minute of body camera footage that shows what happened in the seconds leading up to the officer’s encounter with Muñoz and the shooting on the night of the incident.

However, the 911 call will be released when the investigation is complete and the DA has made a determination, Hambright, agency spokesperson, said.

 If the Muñoz review takes months, his family and the public may grow impatient. Stedman faced criticism for how long it took his office to complete its investigation into the Rodriguez shooting. At the time, Stedman said being thorough was more important than being fast.

“What I was determined to do and I’m always determined to do is to get it right. Not under the time pressure of anybody else’s schedule...My job is to do it right and do it once,” he said at the time.

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