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City’s “Progressive” Use of Force Policy Allowed Ricardo Munoz to be Killed: Is Reforming the Policy

When the Lancaster Bureau of Police’s Use of Force Policy was last revised in 2018, Department Policy Manager Eric Leanza called it “the most comprehensive and progressive policy of its kind” in the country. On September 13, 2020, 27-year-old Ricardo Munoz was shot and killed by Police operating under this same policy. Here we look at how the Lancaster Bureau’s Use of Force policy failed to prevent Munoz’ death as well as what the Policy says about accountability for the officer who killed him.

Lancaster City’s Commitments to Racial Equity highlights aspects of the Use of Force Policy such as “requiring warning before shooting when possible” and “exhausting all other means before shooting.” The officer, whose name has not been released, does not give a warning before firing shots in body camera footage of the killing released by the Police Bureau. The officer also does not attempt to use any other methods to incapacitate Munoz before killing him.

Despite the Policy being touted as a model for “progressive” policing, it does little, if anything to effectively discourage the actions of the officer who killed Munoz. The Policy is not a set of clear rules for how Officers are required to conduct themselves in order to prioritize the safety of the residents. Rather, the Policy acts a set of suggestions to be followed at the Officer and Bureau's discretion with the legal and physical protection of officers in mind.

A notice in the document states the Policy is “a directive for the Police Bureau use only” and “should not be construed as the creation of a higher legal standard of safety or care.” Additionally, the notice says “a definitive policy to cover all eventualities cannot be created.” These measures protect the department from legal claims and repercussions even when their own policies are violated. Most critically, the Policy is up to the Bureau to enforce.

It is certain that Use of Force Policy did not prevent the killing of Munoz, and it is also not likely to result in proportionate accountability. While the individual Officer should absolutely be held accountable, the problem remains that the individual did not necessarily violate the rules of the system they are operating in. Rather, the Officer acted as the system of policing allows and encourages them to even under the “most progressive policy of its kind.”

History tells us the response of Mayor Danene Sorace will be to collaborate with Police Chief Jarred Berkihaser to reform from within. However, this same reformative approach created the policy that allowed Munoz to be killed.

The revisions to the Policy that were made in 2018 were the result of local and national outcry after a video of a Lancaster Police officer tasing a Black man named Sean D. Williams in the back went viral. Sorace did not suspend the officer because he was not acting in violation of what was then the Bureau’s Use of Force Policy. The City’s solution to incidents of such brutality was to revise the Use of Force Policy.

In 2020, the same sentiment was echoed by Berkihaser, who described uses of pepper spray on protestors as “by the book” but said the book may need to be rewritten. Numerous lawsuits for excessive force, violent police response to protesters, and now Munoz’s death beg the question: how many opportunities do the Chief and Mayor get to “rewrite” the book before we divest from the book and its authors entirely? While the police killing of Munoz is likely to be framed as an inevitability by City Police and officials, residents in the streets remember the killing of Munoz is only unavoidable when the problem of policing is met with the same inadequate solutions.

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