War of words delays action on York City police plan — for now

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

The head of the labor union representing York City's police officers opposes a plan that would allow the city to increase its police force and codify a supervisory role.

Fraternal Order of Police White Rose Lodge 15 President Benjamin Praster said he's not opposed to increasing the number of officers — which is currently capped at 100 under the current city code. However, he believes changes to city ordinances would put too much power into the hands of the police commissioner — currently Michael Muldrow — and city officials.

"If you give the commissioner all that power, you better be happy about the next commissioner having all that power, because that's not going away," Praster said.

At issue is the designation of a detective commander, who would oversee the department's investigative unit. Currently, Muldrow said, Detective Andy Baez serves that function informally, but his role has not been codified.

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The union filed a grievance against the city regarding the potential detective commander position in April. "This is a supervisory position not defined by the [collective bargaining agreement] and is a violation of the membership's right to promotions through testing," that grievance reads.

Praster said the position should be filled like any other civil service position — not merely appointed by the commissioner.

"I'm very concerned about the administration coming forward on the heels of the crisis and attempt to do what many people have done in the past," he said, "which is use that crisis to say 'Hey, the answer to solving this crisis is to give me all this power.'"

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

Joe Rudolf, the attorney who drafted the city's ordinance, disputed that assertion, noting that the proposed position of detective commander had already been present in the ordinance concerning police.

"There was this long-dormant position, not a civil service rank but a duty assignment position not unlike a K-9 officer of a school resource officer," he said.

The ordinance Rudolf drafted repeals the section of city code capping the department staff at 100 officers.

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That clause prevents the city from hiring additional full-time officers unless they are paid for by outside funding, a fact that 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 last week. "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.

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.

By Muldrow's estimate, he needs an additional 22 officers to keep up with the department's demands.

According to Kim Robertson, the city's acting business administrator, it costs the city $65,000, to hire a new probationary police officer. That includes salary, equipment, training and employer Medicare tax.

Muldrow's proposed changes came after the city's 18th homicide of the year. In comments afterward, the police commissioner said the department was "outmanned and outgunned."

Tensions between the city and its police labor union have been simmering for a while. The FOP, for example, stood behind Clayton Swartz, the city police officer who was suspended after allegations emerged that he jokingly pressing his knee on the neck of another man at a party in May 2020, shortly after George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis police officer in the same manner.

Lou Rivera takes a ceremonial "Oath of Office" administered by Pastor Joel Folkemer, left, at the start of the first York City Council meeting of the year, Monday, January 6, 2020. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Councilperson Lou Rivera lamented what he saw as animosity between the commissioner, the FOP and the city.

"That saddens me because the city's going through a lot right now, a lot of violence and homicides," he said.

The police union's current labor agreement expires at the end of this year. It was first approved in 2019 by the city and former FOP president Matthew Irvin and included language about assigning officers to the detective unit.

"Assignment to the Detective unit shall be made by the Police Commissioner or Police Chief upon the written request of the Detective Division Commander," the current collective bargaining agreement reads.

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When asked about Praster's comments, Rudolf challenged him to go through the ordinance and highlight where power was being seized.

"He believes it is some 'power grab.' At the beginning of the day, before this amendment was introduced, all of the officers in the department are under the command of the commissioner," Rudolf said. "If this ordinance passes, the same folks are still under the commissioner."

What the commissioner is doing, Praster said, is taking positions that were once filled by promotions from within the ranks and turning them into assignments that are completed unilaterally.

Muldrow declined to comment on Praster's remarks at the meeting.

Mayor Michael Helfrich said, "the president of the FOP is voted in to represent the interests of the police department, and he's going to act accordingly."

Mayor Micheal Helfrich speaking at the ribbon cutting at Kiwanis Lake in York on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.

For now, the ordinance — both the removal of the police staffing cap and the language concerning the detective commander — has been removed from consideration by City Council. Instead, it was returned to the council's legislative agenda for items that are slated for additional discussion.

The full City Council meeting on Tuesday can be viewed at the White Rose Community TV YouTube channel at York City Council Meeting 10/4/2022 - YouTube.

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