York City mulls removal of decades-old cap on police staffing

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

At the top of York City's code governing the police department is a little-known clause that caps the department at 100 officers.

That clause prevents the city from hiring additional full-time officers unless they are paid for by outside funding, a fact that Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow says is impeding his ability to respond to a wave of gun violence in the city.

"We're so inundated with [serious] crimes that our detectives are working solely on shootings and homicides and everything else has fallen on the back burner," Muldrow said. "I need more and I'm going to keep screaming until somebody hears me that I need more."

The York City Police Department currently has 101 officers.

But that could soon change, as the City Council considers updating an ordinance that limited the size of the police force for decades. City officials expect to debate the change at the Oct. 4 council meeting.

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If passed, the proposed ordinance would remove the existing cap entirely. In addition, the ordinance change would create the position of "detective commander." The new position would supervise the city's investigative bureau. Currently, Muldrow said, Detective Andy Baez serves that function informally, but his role has not been codified.

By Muldrow's estimate, he needs an additional 22 officers to keep up with the department's demands. That includes increased staffing on both the patrol and investigative sides of the department. It wasn't clear Thursday how much that level of staffing increase would cost.

Muldrow has been outspoken about the need for more officers. In response to the city's 18th homicide of the year, he said Wednesday that the department was "outmanned and outgunned."

It's not clear when the cap on the number of police officers was added to the City Code, but the clause appears before other ordinances passed as early as 1978. That language did not appear in the city's 1962 charter.

Muldrow could only say that the cap has been in place for decades, to his knowledge.

"We've been hamstrung by that limit that was set when the world had a two-parent household and everybody drank milk with their meals and 14-year-olds didn't carry guns," he said.

The proposed change drew extensive debate during Wednesday night's City Council meeting.

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City resident Manuel Gomez argued that the removal of the cap clause would limit the checks and balances that the City Council can provide.

"You can still keep the fact that council, regardless of whether it's a supplemental appropriation or otherwise, whether it comes from the general fund or whatever that council be the body to approve," Gomez said. "That's the language that we have, and I think one way or another we should maintain that language if it's the explicit intent."

York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow speaks during a York City Police Department promotion ceremony at City Hall, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

Under the current code, the police department falls under the direct supervision and control of the mayor.

Muldrow said he had no issue with leaving that clause in. Mayor Michael Helfrich did not attend Wednesday's meeting and did not respond to a request for comment.

Further down in the code, the mayor is given the power to hire additional police as necessary — but only for 30 days.

On the subject of lifting the cap, Council President Sandie Walker said that "We need to have some discussion with the commissioner to make sure that we're understanding and we're all on the same page."

Part of the reason for the push to change the ordinance, Muldrow said, is that the department is currently in a testing cycle and taking applications. If the cap remains, he said, it could be another nine months before that testing cycle rolls around again.

The motion to remove the police staffing cap will be introduced at the council meeting on Oct. 4 and will sit until the Oct. 18 meeting, when it could be approved by the City Council. If approved, it will be signed by the mayor and become effective 20 days after his signature, according to city clerk Dianna Thompson-Mitchell.

The full committee meeting, including discussion of the police department ordinance, can be viewed on the White Rose Community TV YouTube station available at York City Council Special Meeting + Committee Meeting 9/28/2022 - YouTube.

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright. 

— Editor's note: This story has been changed to show that Wednesday's homicide was the 18th in the city this year.