ACLU: York City surveillance proposal could create more potentially fatal encounters with police

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York City is considering a proposal to install video cameras, such as this one seen in San Francisco, throughout the city to create a surveillance network.

Cameras already keep watch over parts of York, according to the city's mayor, but they are mostly limited to the downtown area — which creates a "biased" surveillance system.

That's one reason why Mayor Michael Helfrich supports a citywide network of cameras that would cover "high-crime areas," he told those attending a Tuesday night forum held to gauge interest in the proposed surveillance network.

But all that would do, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania countered, is create a police state that would increase the possibility of deadly encounters between law enforcement and the city's minority communities.

Public opinion has so far been mixed on whether installing cameras throughout the city is the right fit for York.

“I would like to see some equity so people in neighborhoods where more crime is occurring have more protection," Helfrich said at Tuesday's virtual meeting, the second forum held on the subject.

More:Public forum: Mixed reaction to York City surveillance system proposal

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

He noted there currently are surveillance cameras in the city that are owned by individual local businesses and are almost solely focused on downtown.

There are very few cameras outside the downtown area, which he said creates a "biased camera system" that largely ignores other neighborhoods.

Under the proposed surveillance network, a nonprofit organization would be tasked with raising funds to buy and maintain video cameras in the city. 

If adopted, York officials have said, 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 concept is not to have the police conduct surveillance during all hours of the day but rather to have citizens view footage, then notify police if they see activity deemed suspicious. 

The ACLU, though, said expanding surveillance would do nothing but target the city's minority communities.

"Increasing surveillance and encouraging more police interactions that far too often turn deadly isn't a measure of equity, it's a measure of the expansion of the police state; a police state that disproportionately impacts Black and brown people," Alex Domingos, organizer for the ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice, said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Richard Craighead, president of the York NAACP, did not respond to requests for comment. The organization has not yet taken a stance on the proposal.

The ACLU's concerns about deadly interactions with police come amid widespread protests over recent incidents where Black individuals were killed by white officers.

A prosecutor on Wednesday announced that Kim Potter, the former Minnesota police officer who on Sunday fatally shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, would be charged with second-degree manslaughter, The Associated Press reported. Authorities said the shooting was accidental and that Potter had  intended to draw and fire a Taser.

Wright's death coincided with the ongoing murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. George Floyd died in May after Chauvin kneeled on the handcuffed man's neck for more than nine minutes.

In response to Floyd's death, Helfrich last year suggested the public should record any interactions with police.

Ryan Supler, a York City Council candidate, said concerns about racial profiling could be assuaged by evenly distributing cameras throughout the city.

That could, however, prove problematic, said Montez Parker, who was contracted by the nonprofit organization Better York to lead a feasibility study of the proposed surveillance system.

“In certain areas, there might not be the infrastructure to place a camera,” he said.

Better York, the city and the York County District Attorney's Office raised more than $30,000 to fund the study, which is expected to be completed by mid-June, Parker said.

Montez Parker, the lead consultant for a feasibility study on a citywide surveillance network in York City, speaks to a crowd at a public forum on Tuesday, April 6.

If a program were implemented in York, officials say it would be operated by a nonprofit organization with a community board.

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