ASHTABULA, Ohio - Modern radar devices are indispensable to speed limit enforcement and have strong potential to lead to unrelated criminal arrests, said Ohio state and local law enforcement officials who recently spoke to The Star-Beacon.

The tools are so very standardized that many officers said they couldn't imagine the job without them.

"Aside from radar and laser, what else is there? Are we going to do stopwatches," Robert Stell, Ashtabula City Police chief, said and laughed. "It would be impractical for us to really successfully enforce speeding in the city of Ashtabula if we don't have the ability to use radar."

However, the speed enforcement tool is prohibited for municipal officers in neighboring Pennsylvania - the only state that bans local police from using radar.

"If you've got a bunch of extra (police officers) around that can do nothing more than that, have at it — but that's not how the overwhelming majority of police departments are running," Stell said of police using more cumbersome methods to measure speed.

He said his department pays special attention to high-complaint areas like the Spring Street bridge, East 46th Street and West, Woodman, Ohio, Station, Union and Lake avenues.

Conneaut police focus on speeding drivers on East Main Road, West Main Road or Route 20 — the connecting stretch to Ashtabula — Center Road and Creek Road.

But for both departments, the majority of officers' time is spent responding to service calls.

"That doesn't leave us a lot of time to run traffic enforcement on the side," Stell said.

That was a common issue among local officials interviewed — not enough manpower to regularly enforce speed limits like highway patrol officers, who often use stationary laser devices to clock speeders and signal an assisting unit for a traffic stop. Taking radar devices out of the equation would set speed enforcement back even further, they said.

"Why limit the tools that are out there that you know are effective?" Stell said. "Why not give officers the tools they need to enforce laws that are on the book? Why limit their authority to do their job?"

The Ohio State Highway Patrol Public Affairs Unit reported almost 73,000 speed-related crashes in the state since 2010, as of April 30. Of those crashes, about 24,500 involved injury and 728 were fatal. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 3,219 speed-related crash fatalities in the state from 2010 to 2012.

In Ashtabula County alone, unsafe speed and speed limit offenses accounted for 431 crashes with injury and 15 fatal crashes from 2012 to 2014, according to the Public Safety Department website.

Crash data from 2014, however, is uncertified until July.

Lt. William Niemi, uniform division commander for the Ashtabula County Sheriff's Department, said radar enforcement not only saves lives but also allows officers to interact with the public — even if it's handing drivers a fine — and curtails other criminal activity.

Clocking a speeder on a radar gun is immediate and accurate probable cause for a traffic stop and the device reading holds up in court.

"There are instances where people have been stopped for minor infractions and we come across somebody who's just committed a crime," he said. "You look beyond the traffic stop. (Are there) stolen goods in the car? Drugs in the car?"

The sheriff's department receives regular grant funding for extra traffic patrol shifts, like during prom season, or for setting up seatbelt or DUI checkpoints.

"At least, if they know our presence is out there, that's a deterrent on its own," Niemi said.

Conneaut Police Chief Charles Burlingham said one traffic stop he made with a radar gun years ago on the east side of the city led to a homicide arrest.

The driver was pulled over for speeding, but Burlingham discovered the man had recently killed his girlfriend in Millcreek, across the Pennsylvania line.

Conneaut Police Department issued 172 speeding tickets in the city last year, Burlingham said.

So far this year, the sheriff's department has written 261 traffic citations, 75 for speeding — "not as many as people would think," Niemi said.

Year to year, speeding offenses make up a small percentage of total traffic violations, but, like the other departments, that comes back to manpower.

Most of the revenue generated from speeding tickets doesn't go to the departments.

In Conneaut, fine revenue — on average, $100 per ticket — goes into the city's general fund and the rest is court costs. It's the same way for the sheriff's department tickets and Ashtabula City Police Department.

"We don't get a penny for a ticket. We've tried before to ask for a dollar (from each ticket) to go toward a training budget," Burlingham said and added that plan didn't pan out. "We have to have continuous hours of training every year. We're trying to offset some of the costs to the city for that."

More specialized training is required for crash investigations and reconstructions, he said and added, it's "very hard to prove speed may have been a contributing factor in a crash."

Stell said tickets make up a "minimal" portion of the department's budget, which is paid out of the general fund anyway. The department doesn't receive a direct check from the city for its citations.

"There's probably departments out there that are heavily funded by their traffic enforcement, but that's not the case with us," he said.

Officials said inventory of radar units and their maintenance is lumped into the normal operating budget line items.

Although new radar units cost anywhere from $1,200 to $2,500, depending on the model, and new laser units could cost more than $3,000 — plus annual calibration certifications range from $600 to $1,500 — that money is usually accounted for each year.

Unexpected replacements, however, could be a hurdle for a cash-strapped department.

"When we need a new one, it gets (difficult) trying to find money for it," Burlingham said.

Grant money from the Ohio Traffic Safety Office paid for a new device a couple years ago, and another is expected this year for the department, he said.

Radar devices have been a fixture for Ohio State Highway Patrol officers since 1952. The first devices were about the size of two shoe boxes, were mounted on the patrol cruiser's right rear fender and could only gauge the speed of passing cars while stationary.

Twenty years later, the MR-7 moving radar allowed officers to catch speeders coming in the opposite direction.

Over time, the devices have become smaller, faster and more user friendly, said patrol Lt. Craig Cvetan.

Currently, the patrol maintains a little more than 1,000 radar units, he said referring to the entire OSHP.

"With proper maintenance, a radar unit will last several years," Cvetan said. "We currently have radar units still in service that are 15 years old."

The sheriff's department replaces one unit every 10 years or so, Niemi said and added the practice is all about technology.

"If you lose your tools to do your trade, it makes it a little tougher to do your job," Niemi said.

Each official interviewed for this story seemed surprised Pennsylvania police don't have radar at their disposal.

"That's definitely something that should be revisited," Burlingham said. "It's a good tool for law enforcement."

Pennsylvania's law "seems kind of silly," Stell said.

"Either you want (police) to enforce the laws or you don't," he said.

Justin Dennis can be reached at jdennis@starbeacon.com.

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