As Lancaster goes, so goes York? City considers crime-fighting cameras


YORK, Pa. (WHTM) — The idea isn’t new, but the cameras themselves would be in York, at least.

YorkSafeNet, as it would be called, could be operating and ideally helping fight crime within two years, if elected leaders go along with a concept proposed in a feasibility study backed by Better York.

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Better York, in turn, is backed by local businesses and non-profit organizations.

The Lancaster Safety Coalition has about 170 cameras, and leaders there have told their counterparts in York that the system has worked. York has been talking about a similar system for years, and Eric Menzer, the chairman of Better York, says that’s the problem.

“What we’ve really tried to do by funding and engaging this study is put the information on the table so the leaders can make a decision,” Menzer, who personally supports the idea, said. “We’re either going to do it or not do it. And then we’re then going to move on.”

One of those leaders ostensibly deciding, York Mayor Michael R. Helfrich, says it’s not truly his decision.

“We really have to go with the majority of the folks, and in this case, over 77 percent of the folks polled so far said they were in favor of the system,” Helfrich said, adding he has personally been impressed with the concept’s performance in Lancaster.

But Richard Craighead, president of the York NAACP, suggests looking at another city for evidence that security cameras aren’t a panacea.

“Baltimore, back in 1996, implemented a camera system. They had around 300-plus murders,” Craighead said. “In 2019” — the most recent non-pandemic year — “they had 300-plus murders with a 700-plus camera system.”

The York study says a system would cost $3.5 million to build plus $500,000 annually to operate.

Craighead says historically, honest people of color in high-crime communities are the ones who get ensnared in surveillance.

“Criminals are not dumb,” he said. “They’d be able to see them being put up in our communities. They’d be able to hide their faces. They’d be able to go into blind spots.”

Menzer says no one can control for all other variables and states conclusively that Lancaster’s system has prevented crime. But he says he’s seen enough evidence it works that it’s worth trying in York, which the study found has a higher violent crime rate than most of its “peer” cities — with that rate growing worse, not better, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, while other cities were notching improvements.

“Nobody thinks this is the only answer to gun violence,” Menzer said. “Everyone involved understands that this has unfortunate deep roots, and it requires a multifaceted solution focused on youth, focused on guns, focused on schools, focused on jobs” as well as law enforcement.

Why not rely on all the cameras that already exist, from those monitoring traffic at intersections to doorbell cameras, whose videos have sometimes helped investigations?

Because they form a hodgepodge network with holes in it, Menzer said, and they can only react to crime — not prevent it.

“And it’s the ‘actively monitored’ that’s an incredibly important part of [YorkSafeNet],” Menzer said.

As in Lancaster, the cameras would be monitored by an organization, which would be overseen by a community board — a move Menzer believes should allay concerns about police overreach, but one Craighead worried just means yet another entity with an ability to snoop.

“There are legitimate concerns, and I think we need to honor and respect those concerns,” Menzer said.

He said the system wouldn’t be forever limited to the city of York, per se, but would start there and could later radiate out to surrounding municipalities.

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