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Authorities clear officer who killed mentally ill man with a knife in Pennsylvania

The officer’s belief that Ricardo Muñoz, 27, "presented an imminent threat to his life was beyond reasonable," the district attorney said.

Authorities in Pennsylvania cleared a police officer Wednesday in the fatal shooting of a man who they say charged him with a knife last month.

There was “no question” that the officer who fired four shots at Ricardo Muñoz, 27, was justified in using deadly force during the brief Sept. 13 encounter, Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams said.

“The officer’s belief that Muñoz presented an imminent threat to his life was beyond reasonable,” she told reporters, adding that there was “no time or opportunity for de-escalation.”

Ricardo Munoz and his mother Miguelina Pena.
Ricardo Munoz and his mother Miguelina Pena.Rulennis Munoz

Muñoz’s family pushed back against that conclusion Wednesday. One of his sisters, Rulennis Muñoz, 33, said in an interview with NBC News that authorities should have reacted differently to her brother, who she said was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early 20s and has been in and out of hospitals.

“This wasn’t a criminal,” she said. “This was a mentally ill person.”

Police in Lancaster, 80 miles west of Philadelphia, had been summoned to the home of Muñoz’s mother, with whom he lived, after another sister called 911 to request police assistance because her brother was being aggressive, according to audio of the call that was played during the news conference.

The sister told the dispatcher that he was schizophrenic and bipolar. He had punched a car, she said, and was trying to break into her house. She requested the officials take him to a hospital.

“He needs help,” she said.

Police previously released disturbing body camera video that appears to show the officer, who has not been identified, approaching the home on foot. Ricardo Muñoz is inside, and as the officer nears the doorway, his mother steps outside first. Adams said his mother alerted her son that police had arrived, and he followed moments later with what Adams described as a hunting knife in his hand.

“He immediately, and without warning, charged the officer,” Adam said. “The officer ran for his life.”

Four seconds later, the officer fired four times, striking Muñoz, who was pronounced dead at the scene.

His killing prompted protests that included setting a Dumpster on fire — and the arrests of a dozen people who were held on $1 million bail for charges that included failure to disperse, disorderly conduct and other alleged crimes. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman denounced the bail order as "blatantly unconstitutional."

Adams said Wednesday that the officer responded as he been trained to — not by firing at his leg or using a stun gun, but by aiming at “center mass” to “meet deadly force with deadly force until the threat is neutralized.”

“That is exactly what happened here,” she said.

Rulennis Muñoz, however, said there should be a different standard for those with mental health issues, who by some estimates make up a quarter of those involved in fatal police encounters.

She said her brother was having an “episode” when he was shot to death. She wasn’t sure how exactly his mental illness was playing out that day, but he would often see and hear things that weren’t there, or he would believe that his life was in danger.

“The right person should have been there," she said. “The first responder needs to be someone like a case worker, someone who knows how to deal with this situation so the cops wouldn’t be the first person to approach.”

In a statement Wednesday, Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace said an internal investigation is continuing at the Lancaster Bureau of Police to determine if the officer who killed Muñoz violated any department policies.

She also said the shooting prompted the potential development of a crisis intervention “co-responder model” that would include police officers and social workers responding together to calls involving people with mental health issues.

“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 added.