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Helfrich: Residents 'should do anything they can' to record cop encounters

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Protesters and police face each other during a rally for George Floyd in Minneapolis on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. Four Minneapolis officers involved in the arrest of the black man who died in police custody were fired Tuesday, hours after a bystander’s video showed an officer kneeling on the handcuffed man’s neck, even after he pleaded that he could not breathe and stopped moving. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP)

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich on Wednesday insisted the public should record any interactions with police, a call that came two days after a Minneapolis man died while under arrest.

Helfrich made the suggestion during a virtual roundtable hosted the York NAACP and local law enforcement officials where panelists discussed how to alleviate minorities' fears of dealing with police following repeated instances in the U.S. of black men dying at the hands of officers.

"I have been encouraging folks to do anything they can to record any kind of interaction they have," Helfrich said. "It’s difficult to just take people's word. It doesn’t get us what we need to remove cops.”

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On Monday night, a Minneapolis man, George Floyd, died after an officer pinned his knee against Floyd's throat for several minutes. 

In a video shot by a bystander, which has since gone viral, Floyd could be heard saying "I can't breathe."

Four police officers who were at the scene have been fired, and officials at the U.S. Department of Justice have said the agency has made a federal investigation a “top priority," The New York Times reported.

Still, violent protests have erupted in multiple states and continued into Thursday.

Minnesota police stand outside the department's 3rd Precinct on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in Minneapolis. The mayor of Minneapolis called Wednesday for criminal charges against the white police officer seen on video kneeling against the neck of Floyd George, a handcuffed black man who complained that he could not breathe and died in police custody. (Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune via AP)

"Even in York County, people in the African American community are extremely afraid to interact with police, and how a simple phone call could lead to brutality, arrest and death," said NAACP President Sandra Thompson.

Helfrich said he has always recommended that the public documents interactions with the police. That's because he had a friend die while in police custody, he said.

In 2002, his friend, Chris Arnold, died from asphyxiation after York City Police officers hogtied him and threw him in the police car, protocols Helfrich later learned the department then deemed appropriate.

Arnold was reportedly off of his schizophrenia medication at the time.

Arnold's parents sued both the city and Police Chief Michael Hill. The lawsuit was eventually settled, Helfrich said.

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday also emphasized the importance of videos in the Wednesday evening roundtable.

"Videos are a beautiful thing," Sunday said. "They're fantastic. And I wish we had video of everything that occurred all the time — obviously within people's constitutional rights."

Video interactions with police have been a massive influence on movements such as Black Lives Matter.

Signs with the movement's brand were seen throughout Minneapolis on Monday during protests following Floyd's death. 

The incident in Minneapolis immediately invoked comparisons to others throughout the country in recent years where a police response resulted in the death of a person of color. 

Perhaps most prominently, people have cited Eric Garner, who in 2014 died after being choked by New York City Police after being confronted for selling single cigarettes.

Helfrich noted that it's "very difficult" to discipline officers, given the strength of police unions. Several York City Police officers have been removed since he took office, he said.

However, it's difficult to communicate that officers have been disciplined to the general public because they are deemed personnel issues, he added.

York City Police Commissioner Moe Robinson said he has a unique perspective on police incidents that are racially charged because he himself has been profiled as a black man.

Transparency and dialogue with officers are what's needed to hold officers accountable for their actions, he said.

"I was absolutely repulsed by what I saw," Robinson said of the video of the Minneapolis arrest. "And it starts with having that type of accountability and discussion with the leadership within our industry. And I don't know if that's happening often enough."

The White Rose Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents York City Police, did not respond Thursday to requests for comment.

Officials speaking during the Wednesday roundtable also emphasized the importance of citizens filming before an officer arrives at the scene to ensure false police reports don't turn potentially dangerous.

A demonstrator holding a sign jumps up and down so police officers behind the front lines could see it, outside the Oakdale, Minn,, home of fired Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin on Wednesday evening, May 27, 2020. The mayor of Minneapolis called Wednesday for criminal charges against the white police officer seen on video kneeling against the neck of Floyd George, a handcuffed black man who complained that he could not breathe and died in police custody. (Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via AP)

Those talks were in reference to an event in New York City on Wednesday.

That day, a white woman, Amy Cooper, called the police on Christian Cooper, a black man, after he asked her to leash her dog.

Christian Cooper began to film the woman. In the video, she told him that she was going to tell them "there's an African American man threatening my life."

In a flurry of criticism throughout the country, many argued that the call could have been a death sentence for Cooper given the recent history of minorities dying at the hands of police.

The New York City Commission on Human Rights is now investigating that case.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.