Assigned to work with youth, former York City cop now facing sex crime felonies involving teen girl

Aimee Ambrose
York Dispatch

The family of a 16-year-old girl thought she had found a mentor and role model in the form of a York City police officer last year, county investigators said.

Her mother would reach out to Joseph Palmer Jr. for advice with her daughter. And Palmer would invite the girl's father to grab a beer.

Under their noses, however, Palmer allegedly “groomed and sexually assaulted” the girl for about five months while serving as a juvenile engagement officer, according to investigators. Accusations include inappropriate touching, lewd texts and messages, and exchanges of photos.

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According to a 2019 newsletter, Joseph Palmer Jr. served in the Army National Guard, as a Lancaster County Corrections CERT officer and as a York County 911 dispatcher before joining the York City Police Department.

The girl allegedly tried to cut off the contact and block him. He persisted, and she felt stuck, afraid to talk to an adult because she feared repercussions by Palmer or the York City Police Department, investigators said in charging documents.

The situation changed in early March.

The girl confided in her sister, who insisted they talk to their parents.

That evening, their mother reported allegations to city police. Palmer allegedly scrambled the next morning, March 4, and called 911, asking about a possible report referencing the girl before he went on duty.

But after arriving at the police department a short time later, he was stopped. Authorities told him an accusation had been made and then placed Palmer on administrative leave. An internal investigation began.

A civil complaint came out a few days later as the girl and her family sought a protection from intimidation order. Detectives with the York County District Attorney’s Office also took over the case and conducted a criminal investigation.

Now, about 5½ months later, the investigation has led to the filing of seven sex crimes charges against Palmer.

The 28-year-old from Dover Township faces felony counts of unlawful contact with a minor, sexual abuse contact with a minor, sexual images of a child on a computer and disseminating images of child sex acts. He's also charged with felony and misdemeanor counts of corruption of minors and one misdemeanor count of indecent assault of a minor.

He was arraigned on the charges Friday and released on an unsecured bail of $50,000, according to court records.

Palmer's attorney, Christopher Ferro, said he's reviewing the charges.

"My client has always denied the allegations since they first surfaced months ago," Ferro said. "The mere filing of these charges is not new evidence or proof, but rather an opportunity to finally address these allegations in court."

Mayor Michael Helfrich said the city has worked with the DA's office on the criminal investigation from the beginning.

"When I first learned of the allegations against Mr. Palmer, I was horrified," he said. “No one is above the law."

The girl met Palmer during one of the police department’s neighborhood walks. She reached out to him for advice in September 2021, and he suggested they message each other via Snapchat, detectives said in the criminal complaint.

Within days, the girl told investigators, Palmer started asking her intimate questions and wanted her to send lewd photos and videos. He also sent her selfies, many of them while he was on duty and in uniform, the complaint shows.

Then one night in late September, he allegedly touched the youth inappropriately while giving her a ride home in his personal SUV.

Among the other accusations, Palmer allegedly talked about falling in love, would get upset if the girl didn’t reply quickly enough, visited her at work, and asked her to delete texts from her phone. He also once asked her to text Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow and put in a good word for him, the complaint shows.

Palmer allegedly molested the youth again while parked in his SUV at a bowling alley along East Market Street in December, the same night the girl’s dog died, investigators said in the complaint.

"In the parking lot, he told me he wanted me and he loved me and kissed me," the girl alleged in the protection from intimidation petition in March.

The girl tried to block Palmer twice, but she alleged that he messaged her anyway. She then sought to end the relationship in February. Palmer started texting her sister instead, according to the civil and criminal complaints.

The girl also alleged Palmer told her he knew her boyfriend’s personal information. Additionally, he allegedly sent her photos of reports she made to police, though the civil petition doesn’t specify the nature of those reports.

“He would always remind me he is a very well-respected cop,” the girl stated in her petition.

Investigators said the girl blocked Palmer on social media on Feb. 28. She confided in her sister a few days later, and the 19-year-old convinced her they needed to talk to their parents, the complaint shows.

Their mother made the sexual assault report March 3, investigators said.

The next day, Palmer allegedly used his mobile phone to call 911 and ask for information on the report referencing the girl.

After he was placed on leave, Palmer allegedly called a York County employee on March 5 to try to get information on the report again. He also allegedly told the employee that he had talked to the girl on Snapchat and taken her to the bowling alley, the complaint shows.

A preliminary hearing in the criminal case is scheduled for Sept. 2 in District Judge Barry Bloss’ court.

Common Pleas Judge N. Christopher Menges granted the family a protection order in March and scheduled a hearing for July 25. After that hearing, the order was extended almost indefinitely until the judge modifies or terminates it, the prothonotary's office said.

Another hearing on that matter is scheduled for Nov. 23.

Palmer, who joined the department in 2017, resigned on April 12. 

A social media post announcing Joseph Palmer Jr.'s appointment as the York City Police Department's juvenile engagement officer.

York City featured Palmer in its monthly newsletter in 2019, including a biography Palmer wrote himself. According to the newsletter, Palmer served in the Army National Guard, as a Lancaster County Corrections CERT officer and as a York County 911 dispatcher before joining the department.

"I have always felt that I was placed onto this earth to help and protect individuals," Palmer wrote. "I love coming to work and leaving knowing that I have made a positive impact in somebodies’ life and sometimes arresting individuals assist them in recovery."

The department appointed Palmer as a juvenile engagement officer in March 2021, a role in which he worked with young people to address bullying, gang violence, self-harm and truancy issues.

Once again, Palmer was featured in the department's public outreach.

"We're doubling down and putting our money where our mouth is," the department said, in a social media post announcing Palmer's new assignment. "Give him a call, and let's see what we can do by working together." 

— Reach Aimee Ambrose at aambrose@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.