Last September, Ricardo Munoz, 27, who suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was shot and killed by Lancaster, Pennsylvania police. His mother, Miguelina Pena, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on February 8, 2020 against the Lancaster police as well as the city and county.
The police shot Munoz four times as he emerged from his home holding a knife after going off his medication. According to her lawsuit, police should have tasered Munoz or employed a less lethal method of subduing him rather than deadly force. The police officer showed up at their door without any trained mental health specialists. Pena’s lawsuit wants to know if he had shown up with any sort of plan.
Munoz’s tragedy also shows the lack of mental health care options available to those in need.
Calling for Crisis Intervention
On September 13, Rulennis Munoz called a crisis intervention number after her brother Ricardo became verbally aggressive. He had not taken his medication and became “paranoid and moody.”
The crisis intervention center told her to call the police. Hoping to have her brother committed involuntarily, she then called the non-emergency police contact number. She was unaware that someone else in the family dialed 911.
A situation that should have been relayed to police as a mental health crisis was instead referred to as a domestic disturbance. When Lancaster police officer Karson Arnold approached the home, Ricardo ran out holding the knife and Arnold shot him four times.
Desperate for Help
Ricardo began exhibiting mental health problems in his early 20s. While attending college, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. His sister recalls that he would speak to people he thought were in the closet and believed he was being followed. His condition continued to deteriorate, but because he was an adult, his family could not have him committed. Ricardo did not recognize that he was ill.
In 2019, he cut four people with a knife and was arrested for aggravated assault. He also threatened suicide. His family begged the judge to send him to mandate medication for his illnesses and send him to a psychiatric facility. Instead, he was placed on house arrest for a year.
Police and Mayor Defend Shooting
A video of the killing clearly shows Munoz coming toward the officer with a knife. Lancaster’s mayor and chief of police say the shooting was justified. However, Mayor Danene Sorace said the incident illustrates issues with how the city and county coordinate crisis response efforts.
Currently, calling 911 is the only system in place, she said. Since 2021, the state’s budget for mental health services has declined by 10 percent. With a tremendous budget deficit facing Pennsylvania due to the pandemic, mental health services are likely to face further cuts.
Psychiatrists note that police have become the first responders for those in the throes of a mental health crisis. As Rulennis Munoz puts it, her brother was sick. It is not a crime to have a mental illness.
Until authorities receive the funding and develop a better way to manage the response to mental health problems, these incidents are likely to continue.
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