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House Committee to Revisit Issue of Police Radar this Spring; State College Chief says Local Police Should Have Radar

by on March 17, 2014 7:00 AM

For decades, law enforcement and other groups have unsuccessfully urged state lawmakers to allow local police officers to use radar for speed enforcement -- and a state House committee is expected to take up the issue this spring.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that does not allow municipal police officers to use radar. Currently, state law only allows Pennsylvania State Police to utilize the tool and state troopers have been using it since 1962. Still, every attempt by municipal law enforcement and other groups to amend the state's law has failed.

Eric Bugaile, executive director of the state House transportation committee told StateCollege.com the committee plans to hold a hearing in May to have a general discussion about police radar. The public hearing is expected to include a radar demonstration by state police.

Before the committee is House Bill 38, which would allow trained, full-time police officers with 24-hour police departments to use radar. The bill also requires half of the revenue generated by related tickets go into a fund for enforcement grants to accredited police departments.

State Rep. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe County, and several other lawmakers introduced the bill Jan. 8.

State College Police Chief Tom King, who is also president of the Pennsylvania Police Chiefs Association, says there is no logical argument to keep the radar tool out of the hands of local police officers.

"It's as simple as it's a trust issue. I don't think they trust law enforcement to use the tool appropriately and that is insulting and it's embarrassing, and in the meantime we're exceeding all but two other states in the country in the number of lives we are losing every year to speed related crashes," King says.

Pennsylvania ranks third in the number of speed-related fatal crashes after Texas and California, according to 2011 figures compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That year, there were 1,286 fatalities in Pennsylvania of which nearly half - or 615 - were speed related.

Additionally, 87 percent - or 534 - of speed-related fatalities happened on roads monitored by local police departments.

King believes if local police were able to use radar the result would be an increase in speed enforcement, which would deter drivers from speeding and ultimately reduce the number of fatal crashes on local roads.

The Pennsylvania Police Chiefs Association, Pennsylvania State Mayors Association and other groups say they want the state law to be altered by four words. The current law states:

Electronic devices such as radio-microwave devices (commonly referred to as electronic speed meters or radar) may be used only by members of the Pennsylvania State Police.

Proponents would like the law amended to say:

Electronic devices such as radio-microwave devices (commonly referred to as electronic speed meters or radar) may be used by any police officer.

The Pennsylvania State Police also support expansion of the law so local police can utilize radar.

"We're not opposed to any bills that would allow the use of radar by local police.

We feel it would be a benefit to different police agencies if they had that tool at their disposal. It's something that makes our roads safer," says Trooper Adam Reed, a spokesman for the agency.

Currently, State College police use ENRADD, or an electronic non-radar device, to monitor speeding, which King says is just as accurate as radar, however, is more labor intensive to execute.

When local police want to participate in a speed enforcement detail they need at least two officers – one to operate the equipment and a second to perform a traffic stop on the speeding driver. The detail can be time consuming as well when factoring in equipment set up, King says.

"With radar, if you have 15 extra minutes in your shift and you're not busy, you can go set up, as one person, all by yourself, in seconds, and you're ready to go," King says. "We are missing out on opportune times to do random, periodic speed enforcement ... which ultimately causes the public to be more cautious in their driving habits."

A radar gun is essentially a point-and-shoot tool that only requires one officer.

Over the years, opponents have said small municipal governments struggling financially might use radar as a way to generate revenue. State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, who supports expanding use to local police, says some of his colleagues have raised this concern.

"There is a fear that it could become a ticket mill," he says.

Benninghoff, whose son works as a police officer in Western Pennsylvania, says the General Assembly is so divided on the issue that in order for the law to change, it likely will have to happen incrementally.

"It's been a tug of war," he says.

King says the argument that police would use the tool to generate more revenue for a municipality is a myth.

The fine for speeding starts at $25 plus $2 for every mile over the speed limit. Half of that amount goes to the local municipality and half goes to the state. The reason a ticket ultimately costs a driver as much as $150 is due to added fees, such as court costs, which the state mandates.

In 2013, State College borough generated $15,000 in revenue for all vehicle code violations, which is less than one percent of the police department's $9.9 million budget.

"It's not a moneymaker for municipalities," he says.

King says the public should demand state lawmakers allow local police officers to use radar because it is a public safety issue.

"It could be anyone of us or our family members injured or killed in the next speed-related crash," he says. "I think the public ought to be contacting their lawmakers and asking, 'why are we not allowing police to have the effective tools to slow drivers down on our streets?' I think the majority of residents would take the risk of getting a citation over jeopardizing safety."

Steve Miskin, spokesman for Speaker of the House Sam Smith, says Smith is interested to see the results of May's discussion with the transportation committee.

"He will anxiously await the outcome of the hearing and whatever the committee comes up with," he says.

Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre County, and Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre County, did not respond to requests for comment on this issue.

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for StateCollege.com. She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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