EDITORIAL: Could they be watching?

York Dispatch Editorial Board

It's hard to get away from cameras these days. Doorbell cameras, traffic cameras, surveillance at businesses, we're all walking and driving in and out of view constantly.

And now York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow wants to make that video network official.

Muldrow has been in touch with Better York on the possibility of setting up a surveillance similar to one in Lancaster City, which is run by the Lancaster Safety Coalition.

The nonprofit has set up more than 100 cameras in downtown Lancaster, and the cameras are monitored by paid camera operators, according to the coalition's website. The operators report possible criminal activity to police, and the video is available for police and can be subpoenaed by defense attorneys.

"I think that it will quickly become an invaluable tool, that if we would be able to pull it off in York, would dramatically impact our communities quickly," Muldrow said at a community meeting on Monday.

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Better York has raised $30,000 to support a feasibility study of the program, in addition to $2,500 each from the city and York County District Attorney's Office, said Eric Menzer, chairperson of Better York. 

 “We believe there is a great degree of interest in this endeavor," he said.

Yes, we can see where there would be a great deal of interest. York City has its share of criminal activity. Six people have been shot in five incidents since Feb. 20, and while police have made arrests in gun crimes, none of those were connected to the actual shootings that have taken place.

Having video of the many streets and corners where criminal activity is known to occur would be a dream for a police department. Just ask Lancaster City Police.

York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow speaks at a police community forum at Stillmeadow Nazarene Church's York City campus Monday, March 1, 2021. It was the first of the monthly forums designed to strengthen the relationship between the city police department and the community. Over 50 people attended. Bill Kalina photo

"(The surveillance network has) been very successful," said Lancaster City Police spokesperson Bill Hickey. "We've had cameras that have helped us solve homicides, where the footage that was captured led to the identification and arrest of homicide suspects."

Millersville University did a study of the Lancaster set-up in 2015, about 12 years after the coalition put the cameras in place.

It found that the video was doing what it was supposed to by providing police with evidence that they use to identify criminals and in some cases piece together the actions leading up to the crime. Defense attorneys also used the videos, although there were complaints that videos for lesser crimes often weren't available for the defense to use because the coalition only keeps the video for 14 days. 

But that study didn't examine the privacy aspect, and that's an area we think is being overlooked.

Yes, in many cases there is already video. But that video is being created by private individuals or businesses and isn't being networked and watched by an organization. 

We recognize the need to cut crime in the city, and we also hear consistently that witnesses to crime will not speak to police. Having a video means police can learn what happened without needing any witnesses to step forward.

But how much of everyday life would be caught on video and watched through this network? How many innocent interactions might be mistaken for crimes? While Muldrow stressed that the videos would be monitored by civilians, not police, there remains a Big Brother feeling to constant camera surveillance, even on public streets.

We think the city needs to consider the privacy of its citizens as well as their safety before putting this proposal into action.