The sons of William Penn, by special order, granted permission to establish a town West of the Susquehanna River along the Codorus Creek. The land was surveyed in 1739 and a settlement established. When 23 lots were taken up in November of 1741. Division of a portion of Lancaster County in 1749 established the county of York. The Sheriff of Lancaster County was the first law enforcement official to serve the town of York, from 1741 until 1749. The High Constable, his assistant and a Watchman provided for law enforcement to the community for years thereafter. Authorized by an act of legislature, York became a Borough in 1787. The earliest roots of the York City Police Department can be found in a hard written record of town meeting help on the 24th day of February 1798. An ordinance, passed at this meeting, taxed the Borough’s freeholder’s (free men) real and personal estates a sum not to exceed one hundred and fifty dollars. The taxes collected would be applied for the support of the Police Department.
A Nightly Watch was established in 1803. Eight Watchmen would patrol the streets and alleys by rotation every night, from 10 o’clock in the evening until daylight. Watchmen would cry out the hours and always be vigilant for fires, the greatest threat to this early community because of the many wooded structures. The Borough High Constable oversaw the watchmen, and Borough reports in 1855 referred to him as the “High Constable” and “Chief of Police” interchangeably. Communication between Watchmen was by whistle or the Police Rattle. Watchmen summoning help could only hope another watchman in an adjoining district would hear their call for assistance.
In 1865, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed an act, “To authorize the appointment of sufficient Police Force for the Borough of York”. It is unclear under what authority the watchmen and police operated prior to this act. It is clear there was a “Police Force” before the act authorized one.
York became a city of the third class in 1887. Prior to this time, the police dressed in a three-piece suit and bowler hat typical of that period. The badge of their office was worn on the coat lapel, and a number wreath was worn on their hats. When a uniform was adopted, it was the one most frequently associated with the early police officer, the “Keystone Cops” style. This uniform was worn until approximately 1910, when a more modern style was adopted.
Before the installation of a call box system in 1904, officers in their districts were summoned by a flashlights system. Lights were place on poles at intersections within their districts. These lights were controlled from City Hall, and the officer would respond to an area of trouble, according to the light flashing in his district. Prisoners were walked to the police station by the arresting officer until 1895, when a combination of horses from one of the fire companies, and each time a prisoner was transported the fire company providing the horse would receive $0.50 of any fine levied against the prisoner. Later officers transported prisoners on the trolleys and in taxicabs. The first motorized vehicle purchased by the police department was a motorcycle in 1911. The first cars for use by the police department were purchased in 1935, and police radios followed in 1937.
Today, York is a highly industrialized community, with a diverse multi-cultural population of over 43,000 residents. A modern York City Police Department with 97 sworn officers patrols the five and one half square miles of the city and responds to over 62,000 calls for service each year. A combination of traditional policing methods and Community Oriented Policing has created a “working together partnership” between the community and the police department. This partnership provides a vehicle for residents to voice concerns in their neighborhoods, and take an active role in improving the quality of life where they live.
Prepared by Sgt. John A. Stine (Retired)