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Voter intimidation concerns after sheriff's K-9 seen at York City ballot drop-box

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

Some York County voters said they were alarmed Saturday when they arrived at the York County Administrative Center to drop off their mail-in ballots and saw a sergeant from the sheriff's department with a K-9.

Sandra Thompson, president of the York NAACP, said Monday that the sight of police officers and a police dog at a voting location could be intimidating to Black voters, especially because of York City's history of police violence.

The York City Police Department's use of dogs against primarily Black residents in the 1960s, often in unprovoked attacks, has been cited as a major precursor to the 1969 race riots.

"It may not have been the actual intent," Thompson said. "However, the county should have known better, known more of our history, to not have had an armed, uniformed officer with a dog outside, or standing close to a polling place."

A picture circulating on social media Monday appeared to show a sheriff's deputy with a black dog standing near a canopy that covered the county's mail-in ballot drop box.

There was no credit listed for the photo, and it was unclear who took the picture.

Saturday was the first day the drop box was placed on the sidewalk in front of the county administrative center, 28 E. Market St., so voters could drive up and drop off their ballots without getting out of their cars.

A voter casts her ballot at the drop box at the York County Administrative Center Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. County employees checked voters ballot to make sure they were submitted correctly. Bill Kalina photo

The York County Sheriff's Department provides security to all county government buildings, including the administrative center. 

Sheriff Rich Keuerleber said deputy Sgt. Bienamino Lopez, the supervisor in charge of security at county government buildings, takes his K-9 partner with him on his rounds, and Lopez was on a shift at the administrative center Saturday.

Lopez only brought the dog outside two times during his shift so the dog could relieve itself, Keuerleber said.

"They’re not police dogs, they’re detection dogs," he said.

York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler said the sheriff's deputies guard the ballot box to protect the ballots and ensure the security of the mail-in ballot drop box process, as well as  protect the voters and the county employees.

The county will place the drop box on the sidewalk two more times: Sunday, Nov. 1, and on Election Day, Nov. 3.

Thompson said even the overt presence of law enforcement at the ballot drop box could be a deterrent to Black voters.

Police dog photo from the York County Historical Society

She said the county should apologize for the mistake and explain to voters that the county's intention was not to intimidate anyone from voting.

County officials, she said, should ensure it doesn't happen again.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich on Monday mentioned the presence of the sheriff's department at the ballot drop-box in his regular Facebook livestream.

"Optimally, our voting is supposed to go on without any kind of police presence, without any kind of voter intimidation, anything like that," he said. "It is supposed to be an open process."

Helfrich said that in rush to make sure people had the chance to return their ballots, the county may have overlooked a few details, including the fact that the tent that covered the drop-box was a York County Sheriff's Department tent.

He said he spoke with Wheeler about whether sheriff's deputies should be stationed around the drop box. Helfrich said they spoke about the fact that election staffers have been dealing with harassment and threats from the public, and the county is in charge of ensuring their safety.

"We're working on some things and trying to find a way to balance out, to make sure that there is no intimidation of voters, but at the same time, there is protection for the workers there," Helfrich said.

Lillie Belle Allen, 27, a mother of two, was shot and killed while visiting family in York during the York Riots on July 21, 1969.  Submitted photo

Police dogs have been taboo in York City for decades.

Attacks by police dogs against Black residents were among the catalysts for the 1969 race riots in York City.

The riots resulted in two deaths, including the murder of 27-year-old Lillie Belle Allen, a Black woman from South Carolina who was visiting family in York City when she was shot by a gang of white teenagers July 21, 1969.

The teens had been given ammunition by police and encouraged by some officers, including future Mayor Charlie Robertson, to shoot any Black people who ventured into their neighborhood.

Two men — Robert N. Messersmith and Gregory H. Neff — were convicted of second-degree murder in 2002 for Allen's death.

Another victim was 22-year-old white police officer Henry Schaad, who was shot by Black protesters while responding to another riot-related shooting.

Stephen D. Freeland and Leon "Smickel" Wright were convicted of second-degree murder in 2003 for Schaad's death.

In response to questions about the perception of having a police K-9 near a voting area in York City, Keuerleber said he couldn't base his decisions on public perception.

"The sergeant that’s in charge of security when he does his rounds, that's his partner," Keuerleber said of the officer who was at the ballot drop-box. "He brings his dog with him."

Wheeler said there would be a K-9 working on the other two days the drop-box is scheduled to be on the sidewalk, but in response to public concerns, the dog will not be out in public view again while people are voting unless there's an explicit need for its skills.

"If there were a bomb threat or something, then we would bring them out," she said.

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