Ricardo Miguel Muñoz, 27, was fatally shot by a Lancaster city police officer Sunday afternoon outside his parents’ city home. A video released by the Lancaster City Bureau of Police showed Muñoz brandishing a knife as he chased the police officer, who fired his weapon several times at Muñoz. The family of Ricardo Muñoz told LNP | LancasterOnline’s Dan Nephin that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and was experiencing “an episode.” His sister, Rulennis Muñoz, said she called police and a crisis intervention agency Sunday in an effort to get him involuntarily committed.
Everyone has their own opinion as to what happened on Laurel Street in Lancaster city on Sunday afternoon — and about what happened in the aftermath, as protesters took to the streets near the city police station on West Chestnut Street and city buildings were vandalized.
We understand why people are upset over the vandalism — it is inexcusable and counterproductive. And it is another blow to downtown businesses that have struggled to survive in this pandemic.
And we understand why ordinary citizens are sharing their views on the police shooting. This is America. We live in a talk show culture that invites us to share our opinions in every forum available to us. Rants get attention; nuance, empathy and accuracy are too often absent.
But elected officials have a certain responsibility.
We know norms are being shattered daily in 2020 America, but the convention used to be that elected officials didn’t offer judgments of incidents under investigation, except in the most egregious circumstances.
They might have weighed in with general thoughts or reflections on the social issues raised by an incident, but careful politicians generally refrained from delivering their own verdicts.
There was no such reticence earlier this week surrounding the death of Ricardo Muñoz, which is still being investigated by the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office.
Consider the lurid news release issued by Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey the day after Muñoz was killed.
It was headlined “Toomey Statement on Lancaster Police Officer Defending Himself Against Knife-Wielding Attacker,” leaving no doubt about the senator’s assessment of the situation.
“A full-grown man, wielding a large carving knife over his head while charging an officer, obviously poses a mortal threat to that officer. In general, police officers in this type of situation are well within their rights to use deadly force to protect themselves and the public,” Toomey said. “The body camera footage released by the Lancaster City Bureau of Police seems to detail this exact scenario. It’s not clear why anyone would protest a police officer defending his own life.”
Toomey’s statement went on to decry the destruction of property and the blocking of city roads without a permit Sunday night into Monday morning.
By marked contrast, Republican U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker began his statement with condolences to the Muñoz family, who suffered a heartrending loss.
“Our community grieves and prays for the family who lost a loved one struggling with mental health issues,” Smucker said. “We pray for the officer involved, their family, and all law enforcement officers across our community.”
This was decent and empathetic.
And then came the verdict: “It is difficult for a reasonable person to view the Lancaster Police Officer's body camera footage and think actions taken in self-defense were unwarranted. When being charged at by an individual brandishing a knife, there is little opportunity for de-escalation.”
Partisan criticism of Democratic Mayor Danene Sorace followed: “Situations like this require clear-eyed leadership about what is right and wrong and the appropriate responses,” Smucker said. “It is the Mayor’s responsibility to secure city residents’ safety to ensure there is no lawlessness resulting in vandalism, violence, or destruction.”
It went on that vein, attacking Sorace as if she had allowed Lancaster city to become the out-of-control Portland, Oregon, of some people’s imaginations.
Republican state Sens. Ryan Aument and Scott Martin lamented the protesters’ “rush to judgement that led to numerous acts of violence” Sunday night into Monday morning.
They also wrote: “While the body cam footage supports the use of force as being justified in this case, any loss of life is always a tragedy for the community.”
Their “rush to judgment” point might have been more powerful had they not made their own.
Their lengthy statement included one paragraph that more appropriately could have stood on its own: “As we wait for the Lancaster County District Attorney’s office to release their findings from the investigation, we urge all community residents to have compassion for the family of the deceased as they grieve the loss of a loved one.”
The italics are ours.
Sadly, elected officials — like many members of the general public — don’t “wait” anymore. Instead, they work the refs, make clear their expectations, reinforce favored partisan themes.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect that in 2020 politicians would focus on the complicated issues raised by Sunday’s shooting — the need for more mental health resources in our law enforcement departments and communities, for instance.
What happened Sunday was a tragedy for everyone involved. And what’s needed is for elected officials on both sides of the aisle to work together to ensure something like it doesn’t happen again.
So, please, may we have fewer reactions and more responsiveness?