The Lancaster city police 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,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Dan Nephin reported for Thursday’s edition. “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 at a news conference. When 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.
The events that unfolded the afternoon of Sept. 13 in Lancaster city were tragic.
For Ricardo Muñoz, a man with a history of mental illness who lost his life at age 27.
For Muñoz’s family members, who wanted only to get him help.
For the Lancaster city police officer who was at the center of the incident and will have to live with its trauma for the rest of his life.
For a county that does not have adequate resources to help residents with mental illness.
And for our community, which remains a bundle of raw nerves after months of local protests — some of which have led to vandalism and arrests — over the ongoing national crises of police brutality and racial injustice that were searingly highlighted when George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May.
All of this pain should be acknowledged and respected.
One way we can move forward is by looking back, with clear eyes. That includes the review of Muñoz’s death that was done by the Lancaster County District Attorney’s office.
It concluded that the police officer’s actions were reasonable and that the deadly force was justified.
The officer had about four seconds to decide how to respond to a man charging at him with a knife on a neighborhood street. Muñoz was 7 feet or fewer from the officer and moving quickly.
“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,” Nephin wrote.
The speed with which the incident unfolded severely limited the officer’s options, Adams said.
The officer fired four shots, all of which struck Muñoz.
Neither de-escalation tactics nor the use of less-lethal force were options, Adams emphasized in her finding that that officer did “nothing unreasonable.”
“Police were dispatched,” Adams said. “He decided to proceed to the doorway. ... He arrived. That’s all he had the chance to do.”
This, of course, is not the end of reviewing how the situation was handled Sept. 13. With the district attorney’s investigation complete, the Lancaster City Bureau of Police “can finish its internal investigation into whether proper procedures were followed,” Nephin reported.
That will take time, City of Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace stated, adding that the report will be made public when it is completed.
That’s good news. Full public disclosure of the internal investigation — whatever it contains — will be vital for the community to heal, learn and move forward.
Transparency is always the best route, which is why on Thursday we urged city officials to offer more information about the retirement of police Chief Jarrad Berkihiser. We were encouraged by Sorace’s release Thursday afternoon of a video in which she said she and Berkihiser negotiated his retirement because she came to doubt in recent months that he shared her progressive vision for the direction of the police department. She was talking broadly, not about the Muñoz case. But it’s clear she’s not satisfied with the status quo.
In a Wednesday statement that accompanied Adams’ news conference, Sorace said that members of the police department 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.”
We agree, especially with the county’s necessary role in all this. It must allocate more resources to effectively assist those with mental illness.
City police have one social worker on staff and the bureau is in the process of hiring a second person. But it's not nearly enough.
Lancaster County’s Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Department costs about $14 million this year, but as we noted in an editorial last month, “in a county of more than 545,000 people, $14 million doesn’t seem like a lot for a department that provides not just crisis intervention and mental health services, but also early intervention services for infants and toddlers, and services for people with intellectual disabilities.”
Even Adams, whose office’s investigation was focused narrowly on whether the officer’s actions were justified Sept. 13, said Wednesday that the way in which this 911 call and shooting unfolded provides “a baseline for a discussion, (and) it’s probably a worthy discussion to be had.”
Not probably. Definitely.
All of this, of course, is of little solace to Muñoz’s family. That day — those four seconds — brought devastation for Muñoz’s parents and siblings that cannot be reversed. Our hearts break for them.
“We called for help. We didn’t call for bullets,” Rulennis Muñoz, one of Ricardo’s sisters, said Wednesday.
The crisis intervention infrastructure in Lancaster County is flawed and underfunded. Those deficiencies, it could be argued, cost Muñoz his life, left a city police officer to deal with incredible trauma and sparked greater unrest in a city that has been through plenty in 2020.
Changes to how the county deals with crisis intervention must be meaningful, and they cannot wait.