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York City Police Department's lack of diversity spurs lawmaker probe

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York City Police Commissioner Osborne "Moe" Robinson III as community members gather 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

The lack of diversity within the ranks of the York City Police Department has prompted the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus to kick-start a probe into how to bolster the numbers of minority officers in smaller cities statewide.  

The concerns about the lack of diversity surfaced during the bicameral caucus's third public hearing last week on police reform, this time focused solely on York City Police, where the fact that 90% of the city's police department are white men troubled some lawmakers.

“We got to find out what those obstacles are, and we have to work together to eradicate those obstacles," said state Rep. Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia Democrat who serves as the House minority whip.

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Despite the overwhelmingly white, male police department, York City residents are about 26% Black and 33% Hispanic and Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Those disparities in representation within the city police department are nothing new and are caused by multiple factors, York City Police Commissioner Osborne "Moe" Robinson III said. 

Robinson was hired late last year and is among a handful of Black officers at the department. 

One of the main variables, though, is that York is a third-class city and is therefore required to hire officers through its civil service program, Robinson said.

The third-class city designation requires cities to hire officers solely based on a list of candidates ranked by scores from written tests and oral interviews. Military veterans are given preference.

That means that unless minority candidates apply  — and can outperform everyone else who takes the exams — it's unlikely that they would ever have the chance to work for the department. 

York City Police Officer Alex Nova and Joan Henney, Youth and Community Outreach Coordinator, inside the recently reopened police outpost in the 700 block of East King Street. 
Tuesday, August 4, 2020
John A. Pavoncello photo

“Maybe it’s time to take a look at the best practice, that there becomes sort of one standard, that municipalities, third-class cities and first-class cities all have the autonomy to develop local criteria to evaluate who they hire in the civil service," Robinson said.

However, the assertion that larger cities have more autonomy is overstated, and cities such as Philadelphia "cannot give preference in hiring based on race" and are bound by the same hiring rules, said Mike Dunn, spokesperson for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. 

It is true, though, that first- and second-class townships and first-class boroughs do not hire through civil service in Pennsylvania.

Former York City Police Chief Troy Bankert had also said the city's third-class status hamstrung efforts to diversify the department. 

But this may be the first time that the movement will have a caucus in the state Legislature spearheading efforts directly related to police reform.

Harris said he intends to open discussions about potential solutions with state Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, who also sits on the Legislative Black Caucus. Hill-Evans said she's been aware of the diversity issues for years.

That could potentially lead to legislative proposals if necessary, Harris said.

"I’ve been aware of that since I served on (York) City Council regarding why the police force does not mimic in terms of representation what our population looked like," Hill-Evans said. "Every time the conversations came up, it went away because there’s nothing we can do.”

Harris said that perhaps most troubling about the York City Police Department is its lack of women. Female officers, he said, are especially equipped to deal with certain issues.

“This is deeper than just race. This is about representation in general," Harris said.

Carol Hill-Evans speaks during a York City Council town hall meeting concerning Mayor Michael Helfrich's hiring of Blanda Nace as chief opportunity development officer, Monday, June 24, 2019. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

But the diversity issues in the York City Police Department are multifaceted and extend beyond the limitations of civil service — and some may not be able to be fixed legislatively.

For example, minorities have historically had strained relationships with police, leaving many without any desire to enter the field.

And, even though there are programs such as the York City School District's police academy, individuals have to be 21 years old to be an officer — meaning interest in the force can wane between high school graduation and the minimum age requirement.

Regardless, with low officer turnover, it would take years to bring about noticeable change in demographics, Robinson said. 

“Diversity starts with treating people in all segments of the community you serve in a humane way, and policing them in a humane way,” Robinson said. “And having those conversations in the community network, whether it’s the clergy, school districts, churches and other nonprofits that represent minority communities.”

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