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Municipal police in Pennsylvania frustrated by radar ban

| Monday, Oct. 8, 2012

Air traffic controllers at Pittsburgh International Airport use it.

So do meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Moon.

It's even used at PNC Park to gauge how fast pitchers throw.

But local police officers in Pennsylvania are not permitted to use radar, even 50 years after Harrisburg lawmakers gave state troopers license to do so.

“When you think about it, it is kind of crazy,” said Whitehall Mayor Jim Nowalk, president of the Pennsylvania State Mayor's Association. “Municipal police are tasked with enforcing the speed-limit laws, but they're being told they can't use the speed-timing device that is the most accurate, the safest.”

A study completed in August — paid for by the mayor's association — confirmed what many have assumed for years: Pennsylvania is the only state that prohibits local police officers from using radar to catch speeders.

Local police departments have pushed for the right to use radar since state police began using it in 1962, and each year, the mayor's association agrees to support radar use. Legislators have sponsored numerous bills to permit it, but all have failed.

“We've been lobbying since I was young and had no gray hair,” said McKees Rocks police Chief Robert Cifrulak, president of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association and past president of the Western Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. “We're trusted to utilize a tape measure whenever we're reconstructing a traffic crash. We're trusted with the choice whether or not we use deadly force. We're trained to make good decisions. But it seems like we're not trusted to make good decisions like radar.”

Opponents fear police departments will write tickets to boost local revenue. They also say radar, which sends out a radio signal and measures speed based on the time it takes for the reflection to bounce off an object, is not always reliable.

“Despite what it's supporters and users say, radar technology isn't infallible,” said John Bowman, spokesman for the National Motorists Association, a Wisconsin-based drivers rights advocacy organization.

Radar devices can be incorrectly calibrated or maintained and can identify the speed of the wrong vehicle, Bowman said. The accuracy depends on the officer's training with the device, he said.

Nowalk argues that since state troopers who cover roughly two-thirds of the state use radar, there's no reason municipal officers shouldn't be able to use it, too.

“Allowing them to be used everywhere would make sense,” he said.

Municipal police use Vascar, a speed-monitoring system that uses a stopwatch to measure how long it takes a vehicle to travel between two points, usually indicated by painted white lines on the road. Critics of Vascar say it's flawed because it's less accurate and can only be used on straight roads. Radar can be used anywhere.

Bowman said officials should re-examine speed limits. Raising the speed limit on some roads would lower actual speeds because drivers wouldn't feel like they need to compensate by driving even faster, he said.

“If they raised the speed limit, people would drive at the speed they normally would,” he said.

Rick Koch, a Duquesne University law student who conducted the mayor's association study, said he spoke with law enforcement officials from more than 20 states, many of whom were surprised to learn about Pennsylvania's law.

“They didn't know why I was even asking whether they used radar,” Koch said. “In Pennsylvania, it's one thing. In every other state, it's just a non-issue.”

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or

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