- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2003

The lengths to which police departments are going to bust drivers for minor infractions get nuttier by the day. In Fairfax County, Virginia, county supervisors are considering a scheme to provide radar guns to civilians to combat speeding. This so-called citizen radar patrol is one neighborhood-watch program we are wholeheartedly against.

If the policy is instituted, volunteers using county-distributed equipment would clock cars and send the vehicle identification of alleged speeders to the police department. According to the Northern Virginia Journal, the cops likely would issue warnings only. But there is no guarantee, and the warnings would be kept on record. In the Kansas City suburb of Shawnee, license-plate numbers collected from citizen patrols are run through a database listing other infractions. In Boca Raton, Florida, private patrols actually have given tickets and fines in some neighborhoods since 1998.

The dangers of giving traffic-control powers to non-professionals are numerous. There is no guarantee that citizen radar patrols will be trained properly or have the authority and experience to deal with predictable confrontations that will result. We wouldn’t be surprised to find volunteers using their radar guns to settle scores against neighbors. There are no signs that these stings even slow down traffic, or that they are intended to do so. Eric Skrum of the National Motorists Association told us, “These programs are basically PR stunts to quiet community groups that nag the police about inadequate patrolling. They don’t improve safety, and the resources spent on equipment and hours of police review are totally wasted.”

Neighborhood patrols hiding behind trash cans and planter boxes to zap commuters are merely the latest in a string of stunts some police departments are employing to harass commuters. In Kissimmee, Florida, last week, Osceola County sheriffs went undercover as homeless — going so far as to sit on sidewalks in rags and fake rotten teeth — to catch motorists unawares at a stop light. These tricky lawmen handed out 171 $83 tickets.

Law-enforcement agencies should consider the harm ill-considered policies cause. The vast majority of police officers join the force to fight violent and destructive crime. Farcical tactics demean the men and women in blue. Even worse, ideas like citizen radar patrols are dangerously close to old Soviet police-state policies of turning citizens into informers on their neighbors.

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