York NAACP to discuss city-wide surveillance proposal next week

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Richard Craighead was named the York NAACP president in January. Bill Kalina photo

The York NAACP next week will hold an executive committee meeting to discuss a citywide surveillance system proposed by York City officials, organization President Richard Craighead said Wednesday.

The meeting is slated for Tuesday evening and will be closed to the public. The discussions will come after the representatives from the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union voiced concerns that the surveillance network could disproportionately target the city's Black and brown communities.

York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow has said that the system would be based on the work of the Lancaster Safety Coalition, a nonprofit organization that runs a network of 170 cameras in Lancaster City.

The York NAACP expects to "have a short statement" about the proposal by Wednesday, Craighead said.

Craighead declined to comment further on the matter before the meeting. He first needs to discuss the proposal with York NAACP members as well as the Lancaster NAACP, he said.

More:ACLU: Surveillance network would target York City's minorities

More:York City officials eye surveillance network to combat crime

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich and Muldrow have already praised the Lancaster Safety Coalition's citywide surveillance network. Muldrow last week said it would "quickly become an invaluable tool."

Better York, in addition to the York County District Attorney's Office and the city, have already raised more than $30,000 for a feasibility study of a potential program in York.

But the ACLU and Sandra Thompson, a York City-based attorney and former head of the York NAACP, say it could be used to target the city's minorities.

York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow speaks at a police community forum at Stillmeadow Nazarene Church's York City campus Monday, March 1, 2021. It was the first of the monthly forums designed to strengthen the relationship between the city police department and the community. Over 50 people attended. Bill Kalina photo

“The reality is that of course it’s going to be the surveillance of Black and brown communities," Thompson said. "They’re not taking it to Springettsbury Township or North York. They’re bringing it to the city, with predominantly Black and brown people."

Those already in Lancaster, such as Lancaster NAACP President Blanding Watson, also say that any sort of camera surveillance could cause concern among minorities.

For example, depending on the racial biases of a camera operator, he said, an act committed by a Black person that's deemed suspicious and worth reporting may not be considered suspicious if it's being done by a white person.

“I think that there’s always going to be bias that exists with these cameras, no matter what city it’s in,” Watson said. 

While the cameras could be effective tools to reduce crime, the community must have input into how the network is operated, Watson said. 

The Lancaster Safety Coalition has prided itself on fair and equitable use of its system, said Tim Weller, the organization's executive director. It also respects privacy concerns by not using facial recognition software.

"Our goal is to have the quality of life improved for all of the people of the city. That comes from that feeling of safety from those cameras," he said.

On the coalition's website, it states camera systems operators are trained to avoid racial profiling in their work. They're also trained in "diversity and inclusion awareness," it states.

The approach of the coalition's work is multi-pronged and is predicated on the belief that widespread surveillance will deter crime.

Weller said that the coalition is able to easily supply police with video evidence to support a police investigation, and they also can notify or send footage to police if camera operators see something suspicious. 

The coalition has cited several examples of how the latter can work, such as camera operators witnessing break-ins or a missing child walking alone.

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