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York, Pa., Says Surveillance Program Is Possible but Costly

The citywide network would cost $3.4 million plus $501,000 in annual upkeep fees. City officials believe the benefits outweigh the costs while many residents worry their taxes would foot the bill.

(TNS) — York City, Pa., surveillance program feasible, but taxpayers could be on the hook

The finalized study evaluating the practicality of a citywide surveillance network in York City deemed the program feasible, but implementing the system would prove to be costly.

It would cost $3.4 million to fully implement a citywide network with cameras in 55 locations, according to the study by local consultant Montez Parker, who was hired by Better York, a local nonprofit organization.

The program also requires $501,000 in annual operating costs — but Mayor Michael Helfrich said he believes the benefits far outweigh the cost.

"We are at the point where it is difficult for us to hire more police officers," Helfrich said. "When you look at it, the (operational costs) are the cost of four police officers per year for the total upkeep. The cost, particularly the upkeep, is relatively small."

Some city residents at public forums have expressed concerns about the proposal, including the ability to fund the camera system, potential privacy issues and a lack of public input.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania also argued it would create a police state that targets minorities, leading to more potentially deadly encounters between minorities and police officers.

If adopted, the camera system would be based on the work done by the Lancaster Safety Coalition, an independent nonprofit organization that oversees cameras in 170 locations in Lancaster City.

The system in Lancaster first began in 2006 with cameras in 60 locations, said Tim Miller, executive director of the organization.

Miller said the proposed $501,000 operating budget was in line with his organization. But he could not speak to the initial $3.4 million.

The organization is currently working to upgrade its camera system, servers and other technology, which Miller said will cost roughly $2.5 million.

As a nonprofit, all of the funding comes from donations, which any program in York City would also rely on, officials have said. Either a new nonprofit would need to be established or an existing nonprofit would oversee a local camera system.

However, while it varies annually, about 60 percent of the Lancaster Safety Coalition's revenue comes from Lancaster County and Lancaster City — meaning taxpayers front the majority of the bill.

"The funding is the hardest part," Miller said.

York City has not been approached with any funding requests, but that doesn't mean it would not chip in, Helfrich said.

Kyle King, spokesperson for the York County District's Office, did not respond to requests for comment about whether the office would pitch in if a program were implemented.

Miller has emphasized that Lancaster's program, in addition to helping police tackle violent crime, also focuses on matters such as missing persons and car accidents.

In York, however, gun violence has been the driving factor in the push for a surveillance program.

There have been 45 shootings in the city so far this year. Nine of those were homicides.

The York feasibility study cites a 2020 report conducted by York College's Arthur J. Glatfelter Institute for Public Policy that showed York led 19 comparable cities in deadly gun violence over a five-year period

With an annual average of 39 shootings resulting in death per 100,000 residents between 2015 and 2019, York was the worst among the list of 20 cities ranging from Harrisburg to Phenix City, Alabama, according to the study. Shootings resulting in death included accidents and suicides as well as homicides.

In addition to four public forums, the feasibility study garnered input through an online survey that received 220 responses.

While 83 percent of respondents supported the proposal, 82 percent of whom were city residents, 10 percent opposed the proposal, according to the survey. The remaining 7 percent were undecided.

Helfrich, Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow and City Council President Henry Nixon all support the proposal.

Nixon, who reiterated his support of the camera system on Thursday, said he isn't concerned about a potential financial burden on taxpayers.

"I seriously doubt that will happen," Nixon said. "Certainly not a large percentage. It might be a small amount financed by taxpayers. But I think you're going to find the community will rise to the occasion and support it on a regular basis."

Councilmember Lou Rivera said he endorses the surveillance proposal, particularly because of Muldrow's argument that it would be a crime deterrent.

However, he said, that could change if the city would have to use taxpayer funds for the program.

"I'm not saying that I would be opposed, but I'm saying that at that point I wouldn't endorse it. Not with the struggles the city is having financially," Rivera said.

City Council Vice President Sandie Walker said it is too early for her to weigh in on the matter as she needs more time to review the information and speak with representatives from Lancaster.

Councilmembers Edquina Washington and Judy Ritter-Dickson did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Nixon said members could vote on a resolution in support of the proposal as early as October.

While the final study does not explicitly state the city should pursue the camera system, it does say it is feasible and could provide a variety of benefits to the city.

The study states the camera system could improve investigators' productivity and free up resources. It could also provide video evidence to police and prosecutors, which would also spare witnesses who are fearful of retaliation if they testify in court.

In addition to asserting the city "clearly" has the infrastructure to pull off a camera system, the study also includes a list of recommendations if the city were to follow through with the proposal.

For example, it recommends that the camera system be spread evenly throughout the city, rather than only in high-crime areas, to prevent over-policing in minority neighborhoods.

In addition, the system should be used to assist law enforcement by notifying them of serious crimes, aiding police with investigations and aiding prosecutors with evidence, the study states.

Any footage that is not a part of an ongoing investigation should be stored for 14 days, it adds.

The independent nonprofit organization that ends up running the system should also be overseen by a community board of nine to 11 members with at least seven York City residents.

The system should also be subject to annual audits, the study states.

Helfrich emphasized the city is far from making a decision on whether to adopt a surveillance network. He now intends to garner public input himself now that he has the study on hand, he said.

Although the city cannot prevent a nonprofit surveillance organization from forming, the City Council would need to vote on whether to allow cameras on city property, officials have said.


(c)2021 The York Dispatch (York, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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