Police Department History

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 was 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 after that. Authorized by an act of the legislature, York became a Borough in 1787. The earliest roots of the York City Police Department can be found in a handwritten record of a town meeting held 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 to 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 p.m. 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. Before 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 flashlight system. Lights were placed 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 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, multicultural 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. Combining 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.

In 2017, the York City Group Violence Initiative (GVI) experienced a positive impact on the reduction of gun violence and significantly improved community and law enforcement partnerships. A governance committee was formed that includes county law enforcement executives and community leaders that guide the city initiative and has done so from the beginning. Additionally, in 2018, the York City Police Department added a new feature to GVI called the Crime Prevention Response to Victims of Violence (CPRVV). This new portion of GVI focuses on the primary and secondary victims (family members and those who depend on the victim for support) and their needs with positive results.
The GVI strategy in York has grown since 2017. In 2021 the GVI strategy welcomed its first credible messenger, Tiffany Lowe. Miss Tiff brought her credibility as a community member and her passion as an advocate for our community’s youth and young men and women. In 2022, the GVI strategy grew to include an assistant project manager, a new credible messenger, and two refocused police units. One unit, the violence intervention unit, proactively and precisely investigates those people responsible for gun violence in our community. The other unit, the juvenile engagement unit, proactively engages at-risk youth to provide them with resources and to guide them and their families away from delinquency.

In 2021 the York City Police Department held its first annual Fall Fest, where they brought country celebrations to the inner city. The department offered the community hayrides, a haunted house, bull riding, and food.

Other initiatives that the department instituted in 2021 and 2022 to connect with the community and to help ensure their safety was the handle with care initiative, which is a registry of community members who suffer from mental illness so that officers can adequately respond and care for them, the Aging-In-Place camera system, which is where the department (partnered with AARP) provided cameras to older community members to ease their fear of crime, a camera registry, which assists our investigators to help solve crimes, and neighborhood safety patrols, where officers get out and walk and talk with the community.

The department continues to grow and develop new strategies to fight crime, increase public safety, and foster a positive relationship with our community. We are excited about the future of the City of York

Authored by:
Sgt. John Stine (ret.)
Chief Troy Bankert (ret.)
Lt. Matthew Irvin

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