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York NAACP mulling public forum, polling about city surveillance proposal

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

The York NAACP is considering organizing a public forum and polling York City residents before taking a stance on a proposal to create a citywide surveillance network.

NAACP President Richard Craighead on Wednesday said the organization's members "look to do more research" on the proposal. The organization's executive committee on Tuesday night held a private meeting to discuss the matter, but Craighead declined to detail those discussions.

"A forum is a likely next step," Craighead said. "However, polling may also be implemented to answer a series of questions as well."

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

More:York City officials eye surveillance network to combat crime

Craighead declined to comment further. Sandra Thompson, another member of the NAACP who formerly served as president, also declined to comment.

The proposal in question was first announced by York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow earlier this month.

The potential system would be based on the work of the Lancaster Safety Coalition, a nonprofit organization that operates 170 cameras in Lancaster City and assists police about 2,000 times a year on average.

The York Dispatch attempted to schedule a tour of the coalition's facility, but Executive Director Tim Miller said that was not possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Miller's organization is in the process of completely upgrading its camera system and servers, which is expected to cost $2 million, he said.

The organization's annual revenue over the past five years has ranged from about $350,000 to $650,000, according to its Form 990 reports, which are public.

The American Civil Liberties Union and others have argued that adopting a similar surveillance network in York City would target the city's Black and brown communities.

Last week, Lancaster NAACP President Blanding Watson also said 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. 

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

Muldrow was not available Thursday for an interview about the city's proposal.

Miller, though, has emphasized that the system is meant for the public safety of all citizens — and that the organization has nothing to do with what may be adopted in York.

But he also acknowledged why minorities would question the system's impact on the community, which is why his employees in Lancaster are trained about racial profiling and discrimination.

“There’s going to be concerns about implicit bias," Miller said. "And I understand the reasons why. I don’t want to say in any way those concerns aren’t legitimate.”

Although there are not yet concrete plans to install a similar surveillance system in York City, groups are already working to see whether it would be the right fit.

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

Eric Menzer, chairperson of Better York, said the organization is in the process of setting up a community steering committee to gauge the public's interest. He declined to answer questions about concerns from the minority community.

"We are very interested in hearing any/all public concerns and comments through that process," Menzer wrote in an email. "It’s not productive for any of us to get ahead of that and freelance right now."

The approach of the Lancaster organization on which York would base its system is multi-pronged and is predicated on the belief that widespread surveillance will deter crime.

"It's not even about necessarily 'Is this suspicious?'" Miller said. "Sometimes it's about 'I need to have my eyes on something right now. What is the thing I should be watching?'"

Miller has 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.