York City gun violence study completed a year ago, revealed now, called 'alarming' and 'extremely disturbing'

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
York City Police investigate the scene of a shooting in the 500 block of North Pershing Avenue in York City, Tuesday, April 27, 2021. The shooting was reported just after 10 a.m. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York led 19 comparable cities in deadly gun violence over a five-year period, according to a York College study that was completed last summer but not released until Friday, nearly a year later.

The findings were called "alarming" by Eric Menzer, chair of Better York, which commissioned the study in March 2020, and "extremely disturbing" by York Councilman Lou Rivera, who questioned why city officials were only now learning of the results.

The report's release — at the request of a York Dispatch reporter — comes as the city is on pace for its most violent year on record and as officials look for ways to combat the problem.

With an annual average of 39 shootings resulting in death per 100,000 residents between 2015 and 2019, York was the worst among the list of 20 cities ranging from Harrisburg to Phenix City, Alabama, according to the study. Shootings resulting in death included accidents and suicides as well as homicides.

Vinny Cannizzaro — director of York College's Arthur J. Glatfelter Institute for Public Policy, which conducted the study — said including all shootings, as opposed to just homicides, was important because it better demonstrates gun activity in an area.

“I think our rates of gun violence are high and it’s something the community should rightfully be concerned about," he said. "Whatever the response will be, I think it needs to reflect the magnitude of the issue."

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Better York and the York County Community Foundation commissioned the gun violence study in March 2020 for $7,000. 

Better York is a nonprofit organization composed of business and nonprofit leaders focused on economic development and public safety. The York County Community Foundation is a nonprofit philanthropy organization composed of business and community leaders.

“I don’t know if (the results) were a surprise,” Menzer said. “But I would certainly say it’s alarming.”

The study's findings weren't released until recently because Better York wanted to be able to present the results along with a potential solution — such as a citywide camera surveillance proposal now being discussed, he said.

But Rivera, the city councilman, said the information should have been made public  immediately.

“These statistics are extremely disturbing, and it’s astonishing they haven’t been shared with council," he said. 

The York College study compiled the pool of comparable cities by looking at demographics, housing, population and median household income.

The list of cities included:

  • York
  • Harrisburg
  • Lancaster
  • Reading
  • Phenix City, Alabama
  • New London, Connecticut
  • Freeport, Illinois
  • Michigan City, Indiana
  • Holyoke, Massachusetts
  • Hagerstown, Maryland
  • Inkster, Michigan
  • Jackson, Michigan
  • Muskegon, Michigan
  • Pontiac, Michigan
  • Rocky Mount, North Carolina
  • Trenton, New Jersey
  • Elmira, New York
  • Troy, New York
  • Lima, Ohio
  • Springfield, Ohio

The Rev. Larry Walthour, of Shiloh Baptist Church, said he was "very concerned" about York's gun violence.

However, noting that York has a drug-trafficking issue exacerbated by its proximity to cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, he said it's also important to look at what may be driving shootings and access to guns in general.

“With drugs come guns," Walthour said. "You can’t have a drug market without having a gun market. If there’s an increase in drug traffic coming through here, there’s going to be an increase in guns.”

Violent crime has also surged nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic, officials have noted.

In addition to leading in shootings resulting in death, the study found that York also ranked second for its average annual overall shootings between 2015 and 2019.

During that time frame, York had an average annual rate of 178 incidents per 100,000 residents. By comparison, Trenton, New Jersey, had a gun violence rate of 198 per 100,000. 

"That's a terrible blemish on York's record," said York City Council President Henry Nixon, who, like Rivera, questioned why he was not made aware of the study that was completed last year.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich, who had been briefed about the study last year, said he wasn't necessarily surprised by the study's findings.

The city has compared its gun violence data to cities such as Reading and Harrisburg for years, and officials knew York had a problem on its hands, he said. But what the study did do was put the city's issues into a broader perspective.

“These are things that we’ve known,” he said. “But it’s really about addressing the socioeconomic conditions that breed this type of hopelessness that then breeds gun violence.”

Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow was not available for comment on Monday. But York City Police spokesperson Lt. Dan Lentz agreed that the city shouldn't present a problem without a possible solution.

Still, he said, the results are troubling.

“It is very surprising that we are where we’re at,” Lentz said. “I’d be curious to see what kinds of programs (the other cities) have already implemented to combat that.”

As for homicides alone, York City ranked fourth, with an annual average of 21.23 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to the study.

Harrisburg, Trenton, New Jersey, and Inkster, Michigan, all had higher homicide rates.

But in 2011 and 2018, York ranked first, with 24.14 homicides per 100,000 people and 40.8 homicides per 100,000 people, respectively.

A surge in gun violence has reared its head locally this year. In the first quarter of the year, which ended on March 31, there were 14 shootings — the highest number on record.

With the second quarter of 2021 ending on June 30, the city has also already broken its record for shootings during the three-month time period.

There have been 21 additional shootings so far this quarter, bringing the annual total to 35. The second-highest number of shootings during a second quarter came in 2018, when there were 18 shootings.

With the most recent homicide being reported on Sunday night, there have been six this year.

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