Body-camera footage clears man cited in York City fight
Footage from a York City police officer's body camera has cleared a man cited with disorderly conduct for his purported involvement in an after-hours street brawl outside a city bar.
"I was very pleasantly surprised when I got to the hearing" and learned the citation was being withdrawn, said Lancaster-based defense attorney Adam Szilagyi, who represented Joshua Rojas.
At that hearing, Rojas and his attorney were informed that Officer Matthew Irvin — who was York City's 2014 officer of the year — was withdrawing the citation after reviewing footage recorded by the body camera he wears, according to Szilagyi.
Irvin cited the 31-year-old Rojas with summary disorderly conduct, alleging the Lancaster man was involved in a fight in the 100 block of South George Street about 2:30 a.m. May 8.
Irvin was one of several officers assigned to monitor the area around Cobblestone's bar, 205 S. George St., at closing time on that early Sunday morning because there had been prior fights and other problems there when bars closed, according to York City Police Capt. Tim Utley.
As revelers filed out, a large fight erupted, according to the captain, and eventually spilled onto George Street in front of the McDonald's.
Chaotic mess: It was a chaotic situation, Utley said, and "one big mess."
Officers calmed and dispersed the crowd and wrote seven disorderly-conduct citations to some of the people involved, the captain said.
A number of people in the "huge" crowd, including Rojas, were pepper-sprayed by officers trying to defuse the situation, his attorney said.
In the heat of the moment, Irvin saw Rojas in the middle of the brouhaha, so he detained and cited him, Utley said.
It was only later that Irvin had the chance to review what his body camera had captured from the scene.
Irvin said when he watched the footage — as officers must do routinely, per orders — it was clear what Rojas was doing.
"He was trying to break up two girls who were fighting," he said, adding Rojas told him as much at the scene.
"It was hectic," Irvin said of the fight. "It was a melee."
Cameras help: Irvin said having a body camera recording his interactions has been helpful both in allowing him to review incidents, witness statements and defendants' demeanors, and in getting the chance to review his own responses and reactions.
"We have had no issues, and the cameras have helped us out on more cases than not," he said.
"The camera becomes another set of eyes," Utley said, and in this case showed Irvin that he hadn't seen all that went on.
'Good police work': Irvin, through another officer who was in court, asked for the charges to be tossed, and presiding District Judge Ron Haskell Jr. obliged.
"It's nice to see body cameras having ... good consequences," the judge said. "I thought it was good police work."
"Officer Irvin definitely did the right thing," Utley said.
Szilagyi said Rojas was relieved.
"We went there (to Haskell's office) prepared to have a hearing ... and have witnesses testify that my client wasn't guilty," the attorney said. "Luckily, there was body-camera footage, and luckily the officer went back and reviewed it."
'Objective evidence': Szilagyi said body-camera footage can make it easier to prosecute cases when allegations are true and easier to defend clients when the allegations aren't true. In cases where a defendant's version of events contradicts a police officer's recollection and there's no video footage, officers likely would have "much more implied credibility" with judges than defendants do, he said.
"Whether it winds up being beneficial or detrimental to our clients, at least we're dealing with objective evidence that both sides can agree on," he said.
Rojas declined comment through his attorney.
York City Police's command staff hopes to have all uniformed officers wearing body cameras in about a month, according to Utley.
Progressing well: A core group of officers has been wearing them since February as part of the city's pilot program.
"We're still working out the bugs, but it's progressing very well," the captain said. "The officers who are using the cameras are glad we have them and have expressed to us that they think they're a very good tool."
Utley spent about 17 years as a city patrol officer.
"Speaking from experience, nothing can take the place of someone actually seeing what you're up against when you're dealing with people at their worst," he said.
By the time a judge or jury sees a defendant, that person is no longer intoxicated, agitated and screaming, Utley said. Video footage preserves exactly what officers had to deal with, he said.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.