Q: A few months ago, at a public meeting with state Rep. Bob Freeman in Hellertown, borough police Chief Robert Shupp requested that Freeman propose legislation to allow local police to use radar for speed enforcement in Pennsylvania. Freeman and others have supported bills to allow this to happen, but there seems to be no real progress in the Legislature. I believe radar in the hands of municipal police would be a money-saving, and more importantly, a life-saving safety improvement.
— Lee Weidner, Hellertown
A: Leave it to Pennsylvania to lead the nation in a negative category, Lee: The Keystone State stands alone in refusing to allow municipal police to utilize the most efficient and effective highway speed-enforcement tool available.
Instead, only state police can point radar "guns" at our vehicles, as we relegate municipal officers to a kind of second-class copsmanship, painting white lines on the road or using the road-tape technology or other measures that require more time, more officers and more money to operate.
"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," the Vehicle Code states in a provision dating to 1961.
Municipal police have every right to be offended by this condescending treatment. It's a ridiculous restriction that should have been towed to the junkyard decades ago.
As I found when I first turned onto Radar Road in 2006, nobody can really cite a viable reason for restricting to state police the use of radio detection and ranging technology. You get only smoke emanating from tailpipes — stuff like, well, the locals won't be properly trained and they'll screw it all up, and law-abiding motorists will get unwarranted speeding tickets.
A genuine concern — that municipal departments might be tempted to abuse radar enforcement as a means of raising revenue to refill budgetary tanks running on "empty" — has an easy solution: The enabling law would specify that fine revenue accrue to the state budget or some other fund apart from that of the municipality. That would be tough on the towns, as radar expenses could not be covered, or even offset, by citation-fine revenue. But it would remove any "profit" motive for choosing radar. In addition, radar opponents could make their views known to local elected officials, and even work to get them voted out of office, if they felt that strongly about it.
I've heard pure speculation that some state legislators engage the drag brake in considering this sensible proposal largely because they make frequent round trips to Harrisburg, and fear being repeatedly (and justifiably) cited for speeding themselves. I'm loath to spread speculation, but in the absence of a logical explanation, I'm inclined to accept this as a reason for the delay.
Local radar appears to be working in the 49 other states; I know of no serious effort to eliminate it. Why not here?
The "road tape" devices, despite refinement to the point where tapes or hoses on the road surface have been replaced by electronic sensors at the side of the road, remain more complex and difficult to use. If municipal cops can be trained to operate those systems — not to mention meeting all the other requirements of professional policing — radar training would seem a cinch.
Even the state police themselves, after years of remaining in neutral gear over this issue, endorsed radar for municipal officers, at least for a time in the mid-2000's. "We've been pushing for it" for several years, a spokesman told me in 2006.
That may have changed, however. Current spokesman Trooper Adam Reed said Thursday that state police officially take no stand one way or the other on the question. He wasn't aware that they'd previously supported the concept.
With perspective from both sides of the policing road, former state police captain and Whitehall Township police Chief Ted Kohuth told me years ago that the proper training and potential misuse issues might have been viable when the law limiting radar to state cops was enacted. But Kohuth, the township chief at the time, strongly supported extending the use of radar to municipal departments.
State Rep. Mike Schlossberg of Lehigh County is a co-sponsor of House Bill 38, one of several current bills that would legalize radar for municipal police. I told him I wrote a column endorsing the concept back in 2006, and that I was astonished no progress had been made in the seven years since. "I think you'll be writing columns for years to come" with the same result, he replied. But why?
Schlossberg said it's his understanding that state police oppose the change; he, too, had not heard of previous support on their part. He believes their opposition may be a major speed bump on the road to passage; they obviously have considerable sway in Harrisburg.
Schlossberg said state police might worry that some of revenue they derive from speeding-ticket fines could be detoured by municipal cops using radar. "I think at the end of the day, that's partially what this comes down to," he said.
The view through Shlossberg's windshield on allowing local cops to use radar is identical to mine: "There's no good reason not to support this," he said.
If state police have erected a road block for this common-sense legislation, whether officially, or from behind the shelter of a bridge abutment like a carefully parked trooper using radar in a speed trap, they should remove it at once. Pennsylvania motorists drive a steady stream of traffic calling for better speed enforcement, and this would be a painless way to provide it.
We're way behind the curve on this one. Time to join the rest of the pack.
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