Pennsylvania only state in lower 48 restricting police radar use
YORK — Jeff Streeter, chief of the Lone Tree Police Department in Colorado, was surprised to learn of a longtime tradition followed by local police in Pennsylvania.
So were Brian Bossio, public information officer for the Stuart Police Department in Florida; Pat Bermingham, chief of the Kimberly-Hansen Police Department in Idaho; and Brad Wilcox, sergeant of the traffic division of the Little Elm Police Department in Texas.
What makes Pennsylvania local police different from those in other areas of the United States?
Pennsylvania is the only state in the continental United States that prohibits local police from using radar guns.
That practice isn't so much about history as policy, and some local police have strong feelings on the issue.
“I can have a machine gun, but I can't have a radar gun?” Southern Regional Police Chief James Boddington said.
“That's like a brain surgeon using a screwdriver and a pair of pliers,” he said. “It's a total insult.”
Boddington said he often gets complaints from residents about cars speeding through neighborhoods.
People are typically surprised to learn his officers can't use radar to catch speeding motorists.
Instead, Boddington's department uses methods that include painting two white lines on a road, using a stopwatch-type device and mathematical formula to determine the speed of a motor vehicle.
Timing devices don't work well in bad weather or darkness, take a long time to set up and put officers at risk for getting hit by a car, he said.
Boddington said he spends $1,000 per year maintaining equipment his department uses to catch speeders.
Case for change
Radar guns would allow local police to stop more speeders, which could lead to catching drunken drivers, drug users and people without car insurance, he said.
“Cars kill more people than guns do,” Boddington said.
The outdated law needs to be changed, he said.
Boddington started his career as a patrolman 35 years ago.
“I think of how many lives could have been saved over the years,” he said. “Speed is a major factor in almost all those deaths.”
Radar is an effective tool that can save lives, he said.
“The accuracy is dead-on,” Boddington said.
Caught in a trap
Bryan J. Rizzo, chief of the Northeastern Regional Police, said radar should be available to local police departments.
“There is no logical reason why we should not have the authority to use radar and laser,” he wrote via email.
Rizzo's department uses nonradar timing devices including ENRADD and V-SPEC to calculate a vehicle's speed, he said.
“Unfortunately these devices need a longer sight distance than radar and laser, and limit the areas we can use them,” he said. “One of our most frequent complaints from citizens is speeding, but unfortunately many areas ... are not ideal for using the speed timing equipment we have.”
Lower Windsor Township police Chief Tim Caldwell is a proponent of radar for local police.
“The current devices we have have to be recalibrated every 60 days,” he said adding the practice costs his department a couple thousand dollars a year.
“I don't see, to be perfectly honest with you, what the holdup is,” Caldwell said. Because the law has been in place for such a long time, he doubts it will change anytime soon.
State Rep. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe County, hopes the law will change.
In January, he reintroduced the latest version of a proposal — to allow local police in the state to use radar — now known as House Bill 38.
“I've introduced this bill now for three sessions,” said Scavello, former mayor of Mt. Pocono and former chairman of the Monroe County Board of Commissioners.
He plans to invite members of the House Committee on Transportation to Monroe County this summer for a demonstration by police of methods used to determine speed of drivers. He'll also collect testimony from local cops on the need for radar, he said.
In the past, some legislators were concerned local police departments would abuse the use of radar and use the tool to generate more revenue for their municipalities from speeding tickets, Scavello said.
However, a stipulation was added to the bill that should alleviate those worries, he said.
Now several state representatives support the bill.
Scavello said radar is less expensive to use and maintain than older devices and would reduce pedestrian deaths that result from speeding cars.
“It's the right thing to do,” he said. “It's something I'll continue to work on.”
So many municipalities
Why is Pennsylvania the last state to approve the issue?
Partly because most other states don't have as many municipalities and individually governed police departments, said Eric Bugaile, executive director of the House Transportation Committee.
Maryland, for instance, is divided by counties that control police.
Additionally, issues such as budget talks are at the forefront of the committee's work right now, he said.
Pennsylvania State Police are allowed to use radar, say it's effective and use the technology as their primary tool to monitor vehicle speeds.
“It is a device that is easy for our troopers to use,” wrote Robert Hicks, public information officer, via email.
Hicks said state police won't comment on whether local police should be allowed to use radar.
“We will not weigh in on this bill yet because we have not done a full analysis of it,” he said. “Should it be scheduled to be considered for a vote by the House Transportation Committee, we will do a more in-depth analysis and may be able to comment.”
Teresa McMinn is a staff writerwith the Daily Record/Sunday News.