If you speed on Baltimore County roads, your chances of getting a ticket are about to nearly triple.
Sheridan said the department will spend $205,000 to buy 137 car-mounted radar units, enabling more officers to look for speeders and write more tickets. The new units will be added to the 52 in use, ensuring that the county's roads will be saturated with the devices.
"I don't want to increase tickets as much as save lives," Sheridan said in a recent interview. "We need to get people slowed down."
Seventy-six people were killed in traffic accidents on county roads in 1997, 68 in 1998, 86 in 1999 and 80 last year, police said. Sheridan said speed was a primary factor in 22 percent, and a secondary factor in many more.
Purchase of the radar units, endorsed by the County Council this week when it adopted the 2001-2002 county budget, signals an expansion of patrol officers' duties.
Patrol officers respond to emergency calls and monitor designated areas, known as their posts. But they write few speeding tickets because they are not equipped with radar. Unless they are following someone closely, they must estimate a motorist's speed, and such estimates generally don't stand up in court, police say.
Enforcement of traffic laws is handled mostly by the Traffic Division, whose officers investigate accidents and issue tickets. Members of the division have access to radar devices.
About 44 traffic units patrol the county's 3,000 roads and streets each shift, compared with 115 patrol units.
The only patrol officers with regular access to radar devices are those who work in the northern section of the county, Sheridan said. They were given five units three years ago to enforce speed limits on the area's winding rural roads.
But when new devices are purchased in July, all patrol officers - along with those assigned to community outreach units and Community Action Teams - will become more involved in monitoring speeders when not on emergency calls or conducting investigations.
"The objective is to remind everyone these speed limits are here for a reason," Sheridan said. "When I go to a community meeting, no matter what they talk about at the beginning, they end it by talking about speeding."
Officers wrote 27,890 speeding tickets in 1999, and 22,046 in the first 11 months of last year, the most recent period for which statistics are available, police said.
At a recent council hearing on the Police Department budget, council members expressed concern that when the new radar units arrive, patrol officers will spend too much time looking for speeders and not enough time pursuing serious criminals.
Sheridan told the council, and reiterated in an interview, that writing speeding tickets will not be a top priority for patrol officers. Supervisors will take steps "to make sure we are putting our energy in the right place," he said.
Cole Weston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, said patrol officers should welcome the radar devices.
"It is another resource that is available for our officers to enforce the law," he said. "Clearly, patrol has a lot of other responsibilities, but this is another resource available to them when times dictate."