Radar blocked for local police

For more than five decades, local police in Pennsylvania have fought – and failed – to get radar guns, a piece of equipment used in every other state. And for just as long, only state police troopers have been permitted to use them.

Despite seemingly endless attempts in Harrisburg to open the speed-enforcement tool to municipal police, every bill to change the restriction has failed. Since the September death of state Rep. Dick Hess, however, the veteran lawmaker’s successor in the House Transportation Committee has expressed an interest in bringing the issue back to the fore.

If one of two bills survives the committee and becomes law, drivers here could face a new weapon against speeding.

“It would just make things so much easier for us,” Logan Township Police Chief Ron Heller said. His department, which covers such speed-prone stretches as Buckhorn Road and Pleasant Valley Boulevard, is one of five Blair County forces that could qualify for radar guns under House Bill 38, proposed last year by state Rep. Mario Scavello, R-Mount Pocono.

Heller has testified before lawmakers in support of a pilot program, backed by former state Rep. Rick Geist, that would have opened radar to a handful of municipalities. That plan never came to fruition.

As the years go by and the radar plan fails to move forward, legislators from the Philadelphia suburbs have blamed their rural colleagues for the slow progress. State Rep. Nicholas Micozzie, R-Upper Darby, told a Calkins Media reporter that “the hinterlands” pose a problem for the legislation.

“That’s absolutely a fact,” said Geist of Altoona, who left the state House after a 2012 election defeat. “A lot of the rural guys didn’t want rolling toll booths. And that’s how they saw it.”

Rural lawmakers fear radar guns’ use as a moneymaking scheme for municipal governments, Geist said. Communities along major highways could post speed traps and catch drivers to fill the local coffers, with voters blaming their elected officials for the tactic.

It doesn’t help that lawmakers themselves have faced similar speed traps during their drives to and from Harrisburg, state Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, said Friday. And horror stories from constituents who’ve faced traps in other states might turn legislators away from the bills, he said.

Stern said many of the proposals have limited the guns’ moneymaking possibilities by capping local income. House Bill 38 would give authorities just under half of each fine and would require police to issue only warnings for their first four months using the tool.

“Early on, I was always a proponent of radar in local municipalities,” he said. “I always thought it was something that would have been useful. … But it never made it out of committee.”

House Bill 38, reportedly set for a committee hearing in the coming months, would limit radar guns to full-time departments – which in Blair County are Altoona, Hollidaysburg, Tyrone and Logan and Allegheny townships, according to emergency officials. Another proposal set for a hearing, House Bill 1297, would limit the tools to some of the state’s largest counties, almost all of them around Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

Despite concerns that small-town police could overuse radar guns, officers in highway communities said they’re simply another tool to stop speeding.

“We don’t make a whole lot of money off speeding tickets as it is,” said Officer Jon Burns of the Cresson Township Police Department, which covers five miles of accident-heavy Route 22. His department uses ENRADD, a system that shoots an invisible light beam to track cars while an officer waits nearby.

Cresson Township sees so many speed-related crashes, Burns said, that the state issues the department funds for enforcement. Radar would be another important tool there if it was allowed, he said.

Heller agreed, noting that the money made from tickets isn’t as substantial as some might think. Most vehicle-code violations net Logan Township no more than $12.50, he said.

Still, Geist said, the issue of radar is nearly moot in the year 2014. Other devices have superseded the near 70-year-old technology, he said, including more accurate laser guns that resemble radar devices.

“Radar is almost a thing of the past. … You want something that works for good traffic control,” Geist said. “It’s a very complex issue that sounds very simple.”