The Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office has ended the investigation into the fatal shooting of a 27-year-old city man by a police officer. But the Lancaster Bureau of Police and the city's internal review is just beginning.
District Attorney Heather Adams said Wednesday in a news conference that her office determined the Sept. 13 shooting of Ricardo Muñoz was justified. Adams said that based on her review of the facts and the applicable law, there is “no question” that the officer — who has not been identified —was justified in his use of deadly force. According to Adams, the officer had no time or opportunity to de-escalate the situation because he had only seconds to react when Muñoz charged out of his house wielding a knife.
The police department’s review, however, differs from the district attorney’s role. The city is not investigating whether the officer was justified in his use of deadly force. Instead, the focus is on determining if the officer broke any department policies in his response to the situation.
In these cases, a police department’s internal affairs unit is looking to see if the police officer has done something sanctionable, while the prosecutor is looking to see if there is any criminal conduct, said David Rudovsky, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, in an interview last month.
“With the DA investigation finalized and that information now available, the City of Lancaster Bureau of Police will now complete its internal investigation about whether or not any Police Bureau policies were violated,” Mayor Danene Sorace said in a statement following the DA’s announcement.
“We know the DA’s findings will not satisfy everyone in our community, yet the district attorney was very clear,” Sorace said. “My hope is that we can work collectively to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring again.”
A recurring question at Wednesday’s news conference was the role of police in responding to mental health-related calls.
Muñoz’s family said that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in the past and that, on the day of his death, they were trying to get him help as he was having an episode.
In a 911 call released by the DA’s office, Muñoz’s sister tells the dispatcher that her mother needs help because her brother is being “very aggressive.”
“He has mental problems … and he needs help, um, with you bringing him to the hospital or something,” she said. Muñoz’s sister also told the dispatcher that her brother was unarmed to her knowledge, but had punched a car and was trying to break into his mother’s home.
Adams said the officer was verbally told some of these details about Muñoz’s situation by dispatch as he was responding to the call. In addition, he reviewed written comments from dispatch that gave additional details, including that Muñoz had summary warrants at the time.
Standing in front of the county court house after the DA’s press conference Wednesday, Muñoz's sister, Rulennis Muñoz, said the family “called for help. We didn’t call for bullets.”
“This incident has really hurt us emotionally and mentally,” she said holding back tears. “We’re not the only family going through this, there’s a lot of families out there that have family members that are sick, just like my brother, and are wondering if their family members are going to be the next one.
‘Every situation is different’
Speaking generally, Lt. Bill Hickey, police spokesperson, said there is no written policy on how officers should respond to emergency calls where an individual is in a mental health crisis. “Every situation is different, there’s no ‘you have to do this.’ You have to take it as it comes,” Hickey said.
Although the city police department has an embedded social worker, she is not a first responder, Hickey said.
“She does not respond to 911 calls; she is not trained or equipped to do so,” Hickey said. Officers have to be the first to respond to a situation to make sure it’s safe for additional responders – including emergency medical services, the fire department or crisis intervention officers, he said.
Some people have criticized the officer for responding to Muñoz’s call on his own, without waiting for backup. Again speaking generally, Hickey said officers work with some kind of backup for a majority of the calls in the city, but “there is no one size fits all response for different calls.”
Because police are often first responders in situation that are not a police issue or are mental health related, The American Psychiatric Association recommends that officers be trained in “basic information about mental health disorders and their symptom presentations, specific de-escalation techniques, and increased awareness of the impact of personal biases related to stigma surrounding mental disorders, race, and other factors, as well as the role of trauma for all involved in these encounters.”
Lancaster city officers are required to go through annual trainings that cover a variety of topics, Hickey said. However, crisis intervention trainings are not mandatory but are encouraged.
In Lancaster County, the Crisis Intervention Team, through the county Adult Probation and Parole Services, offers 40-hour police-based trainings.
As of Oct. 5, 260 total police officers, of whom 216 are currently employed, have been trained through the program, according to Mark Wilson, chief of the agency.
The day after Muñoz was fatally shot, Sorace pleaded for the community to help her create a better system to get individuals in crisis the help they need.
“The week after the shooting more than 50 mental health providers met to review how to share available resources more broadly, and they have put together a resource guide that will be published online and distributed to every household in the city,” Sorace said.
Penn Medicine’s Lancaster General Hospital will be creating the mental health resource guides, according to the city.
“I am encouraged by proposed solutions that our community and our police officers have about how to move forward and I am committed to making these ideas a reality in tandem with others,” Sorace said.
But for now, the next step for the city will be investigating if the officer followed procedure in his response or if there will need to be a disciplinary measure. And once the investigation is complete, it will be made public, Sorace said.