On The Radar: Pennsylvania State Police radar 3

Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Scott Kovach uses a radar unit on May 18, 2015 to calculate miles per hour of vehicles traveling north on state Route 219 near the state Route 281 exit in Somerset County, Pa.

HARRISBURG – The 50-year fight over whether to arm local police with radar for speed enforcement has taken another turn. The House is poised to pass legislation to allow radar use in many local police departments, but its proposal would bar part-time police departments and part-time officers from using the equipment.

Proponents who have led the campaign to get radar OK’d for police object to the move to bar part-time police officers and those employed in departments that don’t provide full-time police coverage, said James Nowalk, president of the Pennsylvania State Association of Mayors.

Nowalk called the move to bar part-time police departments or part-time officers from using radar “unacceptable and arbitrary.”

The move to limit radar use to full-time police would create burdensome and confusing rules, including creating situations where police chiefs can only give some of their officers, those employed full-time, the responsibility of doing speed enforcement work.

“We allow them to carry all types of lethal and non-lethal weapons,” Nowalk said. “But we’re going to say they can’t carry a radar gun?”

State police have been allowed to use radar for speed enforcement since the 1960s. Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that doesn’t let local police use radar for speed enforcement.

The state Senate passed legislation that would have allowed police in all departments to use radar by a vote of 49-1 in June. The House transportation committee in November, changed the bill to include the ban on radar use by part-time police.

The change was offered by state Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, who described the amendment as a compromise developed after talking with other lawmakers about their objections to the radar bill.

“It’s an incremental step. It’s a good step, 50 years in the making,” Rothman said. If radar is approved for full-time police, the state can revisit the issue again to determine if its use should be expanded to include part-time police departments, he said.

The change was approved in the transportation committee by a vote of 22-2.

State Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-Northumberland, was one of the nay votes. She said that she expects the radar bill to brought up before the full House soon, if not in the December session, early in 2020. She plans to offer an amendment on the House floor to undo the changes made by the transportation committee, Culver said.

The move to bar part-time police from using radar means that about 200 departments in the state would be shut out, most of them in rural areas.

“I take exception with that,” she said. “They all have the same training.”

Nowalk pointed to federal traffic safety data showing that speeding was a factor in 41 percent of fatal accidents in Pennsylvania in 2017 and about 85 percent of the speeding-related crashes were on local roads or non-interstate highways.

Opponents of the radar bill have objected to the move to allow local police to use radar, saying that many local roads are already posted with speed limits that are lower than necessary.

The National Motorists Association in Pennsylvania has argued that municipalities should need to complete traffic studies to determine the appropriate speed limits before allowing police to use radar for speed enforcement.

Joe Blackburn, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, said that police departments do speed enforcement in areas where they’ve gotten complaints from residents that speeding is a problem. Many of those busy local roads have conditions that make it difficult and dangerous for police to do speed enforcement without radar, he said.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

Recommended for you