Law enforcement lobbies for local radar use

Ferguson Township police Officer Walt Embser monitors speed on Research Drive, June 19, 2014. Townships are looking at the possibility of using radar guns instead of the system currently in use.
Ferguson Township police Officer Walt Embser monitors speed on Research Drive, June 19, 2014. Townships are looking at the possibility of using radar guns instead of the system currently in use. CDT photo

Ask local police about radar and speeding tickets, and you are likely to hear the same story.

They will tell you about the people in residential areas who call the department, frustrated by the number of drivers who don’t pay attention to the posted speed limits.

They want answers. Why can’t the police do more to stop the people who are breaking the law behind the wheel?

The reason is frustrating for police. There is something they can do; they just aren’t allowed.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that does not permit local police departments to use radar guns, the hand-held, point-and-shoot devices that you might see poking out the window of a state police cruiser. This week, a bill seeking to change that was debated by the Senate Transportation Committee in Harrisburg.

“It is not what we want but what we need to fulfill our mission, and what our communities expect,” State College Police Chief Tom King testified before the committee.

He was not alone. Among others lobbying for the change was state police Commissioner Frank Noonan.

Noonan told the committee that, according to the state Department of Transportation, there were 124,077 crashes in 2013. Of those, speeding was a contributing factor in 31,569 — about 1 in every 4 collisions, making better speed enforcement critically important.

King cited other harsh statistics.

He testified that, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Pennsylvania ranks third in speed-related fatalities, with 615 people having died in 2012. Only Texas, with twice the population, and California, with three times the population, top the Keystone State. The national average is 305.

Patton Township Police Chief John Petrick said radar is “one more tool for us to have in our toolbox” to protect residents.

On Valley Vista Drive, where cars drive through a wooded, residential area and past sports fields, Park Forest Middle School and the Park Forest pool, officers might use radar guns to keep the 35 mph speed limit enforced.

Instead, they must use a more complicated radar system, which is more time-consuming, requires a stretch of road that is just right and demands two officers to set up.

“It’s difficult to do it in a residential area. That’s a detriment to the community,” Petrick said.

For years, members of the law enforcement community has challenged the prohibition, begging the state to let them have the same technology other states use. Each time, it has been shut down. That bothers King, who also is president of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association.

“No disrespect to Mayberry, but we’re not a bunch of Barney Fifes out there,” he said.

The chiefs say the only real argument they have heard against the idea is concern that municipalities might use generated tickets as a moneymaker.

Ferguson Township Police Chief Diane Conrad finds that a bit insulting.

“This is not out of a desire to make money,” she said. “It’s out of the need to enforce the law.”

And the money? It isn’t as much as one might think.

Conrad says the average ticket might cost a speeder $183.50 for going 66 mph in a 55 mph zone. The fine itself, however, is just $47. The rest all comes from state-mandated fees tacked on. Of the fine, the municipality collects just half.

“Nobody is making money on writing speeding tickets,” King said. “If that was what was happening, I’d say take (radar) away from everybody.”

State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, said there is another component to the decision — local people making their own decisions.

“If a local community wants, they should get to make that call. This goes back to local control,” he said. “Once you understand, it makes no sense to oppose it.”