York City navigates hurdles on path to hiring more police officers

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

York City is still mulling a proposed increase in police staffing amid rising gun violence despite recent strife over leadership roles within the department.

Earlier this month, the issue was tabled after the head of the police labor union raised concerns about the designation of a detective commander who would oversee the department's investigative union. Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow said the change was a minor one — someone already fills that role in a de facto basis — but police union President Benjamin Praster said it would circumvent existing promotion procedures.

One possible solution as City Council returns to the matter at its Wednesday meeting: Separating the two issues.

“The article change was discussed during our last committee meeting, and that is the issue we are going to focus on," Council President Sandie Walker said, noting that union and city officials are both expected to join the discussion next week.

York City City Council President Sandie Walker during a Flag Day Celebration at Veterans Memorial Gold Star Healing and Peace Garden in York City, Tuesday, June 14, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert photo

As for what Walker describes as the internal piece, whether to codify the detective commander position, the council president said she doesn't believe the council has a role in those negotiations.

“We’ll just try our best to make sure we stick to the issue of the ordinance that comes before council,” she said.

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The larger ordinance was drafted primarily to repeal a section of city code capping the department staff at 100 officers — only allowing for additional officers to be hired if they're funded via external grants. Currently, the department has 101 full time officers who cover a city with nearly 45,000 residents.

That's resulted in strain within the department, police officials say, as they respond to a wave of gun violence. The proposal came after city's 18th homicide of the year. In comments afterward, Muldrow said the department was "outmanned and outgunned."

"For our detective department, we have to triage cases," said Capt. Daniel Lentz, in a more recent interview.

York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow looks on as Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) speaks to media regarding the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act at York City Hall in York City, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

In practice, Lentz said, other significant crimes — such as burglaries — are pushed to the back burner as officers investigate violent crimes.

“By getting more officers, we can get more detectives in, we can spread the caseload around," he said. "The detectives can not only focus on the gun crime but also other Part I crimes that we’re experiencing in the city." The FBI defines Part I crimes as homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson.

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Muldrow hopes to hire 22 new officers at an estimated cost of about $65,000 per officer.

Cities comparable in size to York, such as Lancaster and Harrisburg, employ well over 100 officers. Lancaster has 147 officers for its 57,000 residents while Harrisburg has 128 officers for its 50,000 residents, according to the respective departments.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the national average for departments is to have 3.4 officers per 1,000 residents. York City currently sits at 2.4 officers per 1,000 — a number that would increase to 2.7 if Muldrow's proposed staffing level becomes a reality.

Burnout in officers can show in many ways, like a lack of care or shortness when responding to calls and even excessive absenteeism, according to Lentz.

"It’s something we have to safeguard ourselves against,” he said.

A lessened case load could give officers more time to do community policing, Lentz said. That includes keeping an eye out for suspicious activity and strengthening relationships on the ground.

Lentz said the department had wanted to make both the staffing and the detective commander change at once instead of separating them. He's not sure what the final outcome will be if the changes are considered separately.

The council committee meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the city council chambers at York City Hall, 101 S. George St. The meeting can be viewed at the White Rose Community TV YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/c/WhiteRoseCommunityTV.