York mayor urged residents to record police — but officers already use cameras. What's the problem?

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Police body cam photo illustration/graphic Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo illustration/graphic

In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, York City Mayor Michael Helfrich last month took the unusual step of encouraging citizens to “do anything they can to record any kind of interaction they have” with police officers. 

But nearly every interaction with York City Police already is recorded, thanks to a pioneering body camera program that was supposed to promote transparency and build trust between officers and the community.

The problem is state law and local policy have made it next to impossible for the public to ever see such footage.

Amid nationwide calls for police reforms, Helfrich aims to change that by rewriting the city’s 4-year-old body camera policies.

In fact, the mayor was talking about loosening the restrictions on body camera recordings before the current uproar, but the effort was sidetracked by the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

Critics said it’s more clear than ever those policies need to change, but Helfrich said it needs to happen in a manner that won’t overwork the city struggling with crippled finances.

“Somehow, we have to balance the right of important video to get to the public with the extreme burden of trying to make all video available to the public at all times," he said.

More:ACLU weighs in on York City's policy on releasing police body-cam footage

More:York County public defenders protest the death of George Floyd

But, under state law, body camera policy is not up to the mayor. It’s a decision for the York City Police Department, which oversees the records. And, under state law, York County District Attorney Dave Sunday has the power to strike down any new body camera policies.

Under former Police Chief Troy Bankert, the department’s policy was not to release any footage to the public, as was the case earlier this year when the department refused to release footage of a traffic incident involving Judge Matthew D. Menges.

Now under the leadership of Commissioner Osborne Robinson III, the department will follow Helfrich's lead in writing up new body camera footage policies, spokesperson Derek Hartman said.

“This is definitely a time where technology is advancing, and we want to be as transparent as possible with events as they unfold,” Hartman said. 

Sunday said he’s aware of Helfrich’s plan and that his office is conducting a full legal review of it.

Sunday said he’ll be able to comment once that review is complete.

Like other reforms, body camera policy changes could be costly.

For a second night, York comes together in protest in response to the death of George Floyd, who died after being physically restrained by a Minneapolis police officer a week ago. Tuesday, June 2, 2020. John A. Pavoncello photo

The mayor emphasized that it would be nearly impossible to make all body camera footage available to the public. Such an effort would require hiring an entire team to sift through footage.

If a balance were to be struck, such as adopting a policy where events with "social impact," such as an officer-involved shooting, would be released, a solution could be found, he said.

At its peak, about 100 people gather in Continental Square in peaceful protest for George Floyd, to remember those who have died and to celebrate the communication experienced throughout the week between community members and officials in York City, Friday, June 5, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Difficulties obtaining police body camera footage is not unique to York City, which became the first York County department to equip its officers with cameras in 2016. It’s a statewide issue that dates back years.

In 2017, Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law Act 22. The law struck down any presumption that body camera footage is of public record. And police departments were permitted to deny requests for footage that could be used as evidence in a criminal matter or is related to an investigation, rendering it nearly impossible to obtain footage.

"With the wrong policies in place, body-worn cameras become another tool for manipulation and surveillance by the police," said Andy Hoover, spokesperson for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Mia Nilee Johnson, 16, center left, and her mother Liz Morales, center right, both of York City, stand with about 100 others gathered in Continental Square in peaceful protest for George Floyd, to remember those who have died at the hands of police and to celebrate the communication experienced throughout the week between community members and officials in York City, Friday, June 5, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In a police reform plan released Thursday, Wolf said that he would work with lawmakers on a variety of reforms, including creating legislation to improve access to body camera footage. 

“We’ve addressed criminal justice reform on a bipartisan basis, and that’s what we’ll need to fix these longstanding inequities,” Wolf said. “And as we go forward, we need to address the looming, systemic failings that have created this situation.”

Democrats at the federal level also are working to bring police footage into the public light as a part of a police reform overhaul package.

The U.S. House is soon expected to vote on, among other things,  legislation that would require all federal police officers to wear body cameras and put dashboard cameras on all vehicles.

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