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Want to see what happened between a York County judge and city cop? You can't

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
York City Police Department, 50 W. King Street, York. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

York City's assistant solicitor said the city will not release body-camera video of the encounter between a York County judge and a city police officer — at least not yet.

But York City's policy on releasing such information is now under review and is expected to be updated, according to assistant solicitor Jason Sabol.

"The mayor wants more transparency," Sabol said Monday, adding that the city's current and long-term policy is to withhold any document or video exempted under the state's Right-to-Know Law.

The York Dispatch requested the body-cam footage of Officer Alexander Nova, who initially noted in the citation he filed against Common Pleas Judge Matthew D. Menges that the judge nearly ran him over on Jan. 21 after refusing to obey a traffic directive.

The York County District Attorney's Office later determined Menges didn't recklessly put Nova's safety at risk.

Sabol said the city is citing the investigatory exemption of Pennsylvania's Act 22 of 2017 in its decision not to release the body-cam footage.

Menges pleaded guilty Feb. 18 to three traffic summary offenses. He has 30 days to appeal, but Pennsylvania's Act 22 allows law enforcement agencies to keep video footage from the public even after a case is closed.

Such records can be withheld under the state's public information laws for 100 years or more — long after the defendants and victims in a case are dead, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

"That's bad for public access and doesn't help law enforcement either. ... I can't fault law enforcement for being cautious, but I think that caution is sometimes applied too broadly, and is inconsistent with the public interest," she said. "Once you reach a certain point in an investigation, there needs to be some guaranteed access."

Pennsylvania's Act 22 doesn't have such a provision.

Mayoral discussion: The encounter between the judge and Nova happened while York City Mayor Michael Helfrich was at a national conference of mayors in Washington D.C., he said.

Helfrich told The York Dispatch that he and other mayors at the conference were already discussing the issue of whether, and when, to release body-camera and dashboard-camera footage.

One school of thought among mayors is that if a video has social importance, it should be released, while other mayors don't think such video should ever be released, according to Helfrich.

"This is something we are all struggling with," he said.

Helfrich said now-retired York City Police Chief Troy Bankert's policy was to never publicly release any body-cam or dash-cam footage.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich

The mayor said he hopes to create a fair, logical policy going forward that gives the public access where appropriate.

"We are going to work on finding the sweet spot between what makes sense with public transparency and our limited resources," Helfrich said. "We have to evaluate the pros and cons."

He said revising the policy could create extra work for the city's staff, which is already stretched thin.

Avoiding a precedent: Asked why he can't simply release the body-cam video of Menges now, Helfrich said it's about not wanting York City to set a precedent with unintended consequences.

The mayor confirmed that once a new public-access policy is in place, it will be used to determine whether the Menges video will be made public.

Helfrich said he doesn't have a timeline for creating that new policy and said it will take some time.

The York County District Attorney's Office also denied a request from The York Dispatch to release the video.

According to Melewsky, the state's Right-to-Know Law encourages agencies to provide access when it serves the public interest.

"I think there's a lot of fear involved ... that (police) would release something by mistake and somehow hamper a prosecution," she said. 

Melewsky said public officials "need to recognize the inherent flexibility that's ingrained" in both Pennsylvania's Act 22 and its Right-to-Know Law.

The background: Menges, 41, of Warrington Township, pleaded guilty Feb. 18 to the summary offenses of disobeying an authorized person directing traffic, careless driving and duties of drivers in emergency response areas.

His fines and court costs totaled $639.25, which he has paid off, court records state.

Menges has not returned phone messages seeking comment.

York City Police on Jan. 23 cited Menges with failing to obey an officer's traffic directive but withdrew the citation later the same day at the direction of the DA's office.

The DA's office indicated that was so an "independent and thorough" review of the incident could be done by York County detectives.

York County Common Pleas Judge Matthew Menges

York City Police had accused Menges of nearly running over Officer Nova as he drove in a direction Nova had forbidden him to.

Not reckless or 'wanton': A review of witness statements and body-cam footage led the DA's office to conclude that Menges "did not willfully or wantonly disregard the safety of Officer Nova or recklessly engage in driving conduct that may have placed Officer Nova in danger of death (or) serious bodily injury."

Nova was at the corner of East Philadelphia and Duke streets about 8:30 a.m., rerouting traffic to clear the road for an ambulance that was rushing to a local hospital and carrying a child with a medical emergency, police have said.

The judge refused to comply with Nova's order to detour with the other traffic, officials said.

"He proceeded to travel after instructed not to, almost ran me over," Nova wrote in the withdrawn citation.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.