York City Police, York County Drug Task Force part ways over policy issues

Liz Evans Scolforo

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published on Jan. 18, 2013.

The York City Police Department and the York County Drug Task Force on Thursday parted ways over policy changes being made by District Attorney Tom Kearney.
It's uncertain whether the district attorney's office will continue to provide funding for the city's drug investigations, and York Mayor Kim Bracey said she's eager to sit down with Kearney.

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney

"I'm concerned about what this means to the community. The drug task force has been a professional, dedicated team of law-enforcement officers ... and public safety is definitely a concern," she said. "This could be a huge loss for York County, the dismantling of this team."

Kearney described the role city detectives have played in the task force as vital.

"It is not my intention, nor do I wish, to abandon city drug-enforcement efforts," he said.

York City Police Chief Wes Kahley said he wants to work out an agreement, for the sake of city and county residents.

"To throw this away is unbelievable to me," he said.

The issue: According to Kearney, the city police department "elected to no longer be a member" of the task force because top brass was unwilling to enter into a written agreement that establishes who controls the officers within the task force.

"We've been working on a policy manual, which is all but complete," Kearney said. "We've been talking to the city about that for a long time."

The new policy manual makes clear the lines of authority and allows the task force to work autonomously, he said.

"The city has declined to accept the structure and lines of authority as being through the district attorney's office," Kearney said. "As I speak with my colleagues across the state, one point is clear: That one individual acting through the district attorney's office needs to coordinate the efforts of drug task force operations.

Chain of command: "The city police have declined to recognize any chain of command in the drug task force outside of their own department," he said. "(But) I need the oversight to ensure the drug task force functions well."

Kearney said two police departments so far -- York Area Regional and Penn Township -- have signed the "memorandums of understanding" that allow them to continue to be part of the task force, and a third agreement is in the works with Springettsbury Township. He said he also expects to have a signed agreement with state police and is speaking with several police departments in northern York County.

Still willing: Kahley said he remains willing to sign that agreement and worked for several months with David Sunday, the prosecutor creating the manual, "to hammer out an acceptable resolution."

That agreement specified all drug task force operations within city limits would first be run past a lead city narcotics detective who's been part of the task force for years, to ensure officer safety, according to the chief.

Kahley said a city officer must be aware of when and where the county task force will be working in York City. It's a matter of officer safety and public safety, he said.

The chief cited a recent call to 911 about a gunman in the city who turned out to be an undercover drug detective. The city hadn't been notified and didn't know the gunman was really a cop, he said.

New agreement? Kahley said he was told Thursday the policy manual he'd been working on with Sunday "was off the table and I needed to sign a new agreement."

The new agreement would have forced him to relinquish authority over city officers who are part of the drug task force, according to the chief, as well as relinquish authority over drug investigations and drug arrests within York City limits.

"What District Attorney Kearney was failing to understand is that he can't come up with policy for officers to follow. That's in direct contradiction to (municipal departments') policy manuals," Kahley said.

The chief said he subsequently learned the memorandums of understanding signed by the other departments were the same agreement he was told was no longer on the table.

"Why am I getting asked to sign one agreement and other departments are being asked to sign another?" Kahley asked. "This is a blatant power struggle. ... We need to put our egos aside and work this out."

Kearney declined to comment on any of Kahley's assertions.

Out of office: Kahley said after he declined to sign the new agreement, Kearney told him to have his officers out of the task force office by day's end Thursday.

"He told us he's going to cut us off from our (undercover) vehicles and our cellphones, which are a huge part of what we need to do our job," Kahley said. "We get approximately $200,000 from the drug task force (a year) for the people we place there."

York City had six full-time officers dedicated to the task force, according to the chief -- three detectives and three members of the city's nuisance-abatement team, who assist during investigations, including with raids and search warrants.

For now, the city drug detectives will be working at a table set up in Kahley's office, because there's nowhere else to put them, he said.

Even though they're no longer affiliated with the drug task force, state law requires any seizures of cash, vehicles and other valuables from drug dealers made by city detectives must still go to the district attorney's office drug fund, according to both Kearney and Kahley.

-- Staff writer Liz Evans Scolforo can also be reached at levans@yorkdispatch.com.