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York City publicizes police use of force policy; includes chokehold ban

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Protesters dance following the York Black Lives Matter Peaceful Protest, with more than 1,000 in attendance, in York City, Tuesday, June 2, 2020. It would be the second day of larger scale protests in the city following the death of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who died in police custody on May 25. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York City Police have been largely barred from performing chokeholds since at least 2018, according to the department's use-of-force policy, made public for the first time Thursday.

The department's policy, first adopted in 2014 and revised in 2018, comes as the State House prepares to take up Senate legislation that would make the ban statewide, among other police accountability measures. And banning chokeholds is among the sticking points that has stalled policing legislation in Congress. 

The city is now mulling updates to its own policy after nationwide protests following the death of several Black people at the hands of police.

Chokeholds, among other police accountability measures, have been at the forefront of a national movement dubbed the #8Can'tWait campaign.

“There are very valid points in #8Can’tWait,” said York City Mayor Michael Helfrich. “And they are supported by the 2014 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. So I think many of these things, we are on the same page.”

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It was unclear as of Thursday what year chokeholds were banned in York City, as the policy has been revised since it was first adopted in 2014. That was the same year Eric Garner, a Black man, died after New York City Police placed him in a chokehold while attempting to arrest him for selling individual cigarettes. 

According to the York City Police Department's policy, chokeholds are strictly prohibited unless an officer "is in fear of death or serious bodily injury" and there is no alternative.

The policy also establishes a use-of-force continuum, which provides levels of force that are deemed appropriate by the department for varuios scenarios.

For example, the first level is listed as "verbal control."

But depending on the situation, use-of-force could increase to as high as level seven, or deadly force, if previous measures, such as chemical agents, unarmed striking and striking, have been ineffective and it becomes a strong and compelling last resort.

8 Can't Wait campaign.

Both the chokehold ban and use-of-force continuum are included in the #8Can'tWait campaign, which gained traction after George Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The massive, nationwide protests for Floyd — some of which turned violent — also have invoked the names of  other Black Americans who have died during or after interactions with police.

Those include Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Both were killed by officers in recent months. 

However, Helfrich also has taken issue with some aspects of the #8Can'tWait campaign. For example, one of the demands is to ban shooting at moving vehicles.

“While I understand not shooting at a moving vehicle, if people are shooting out of a moving vehicle at innocent civilians, what are the police supposed to do?”

In addition to that point, the campaign also calls for the defunding of police departments.

Many, including President Donald Trump, have misconstrued the term to signify completely defunding the police and dissolving departments.

In reality, the movement calls for reallocating portions of police budgets to other services that might empower minority communities.

More than 1,000 participate in the York Black Lives Matter Peaceful Protest in York City, Tuesday, June 2, 2020. It would be the second day of larger scale protests in the city following the death of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who died in police custody on May 25. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Helfrich said that he agreed that some departments use their funding unwisely, for such things as purchasing military-grade equipment, including as armored vehicles.

But Helfrich also added that police are vital to the community, and important responses to racial unrest, such as training police, costs money.

"The community — at this time in the current culture — the community can’t function without a police force, and the police can’t function without a supportive community," Helfrich said.

An additional aspect of the policy review process is looking to see whether the city can make body camera footage more readily available, at least for situations where there is clear "social impact," Helfrich has said.

The city is now examining the policies of other cities nationwide. But there could also be some roadblocks in implementing a new policy because of state law.

Under a 2017 state law, body camera footage was struck from public record and is now nearly impossible to acquire. The York City Police Department is able to write up a new policy, but district attorneys can strike it down.

Helfrich has said it isn't logical that a district attorney would be able to so heavily influence city police policy.

Still, York County District Attorney Dave Sunday has said he will conduct a legal review of any proposed changes to York City's body camera policy.

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