Volunteers in citizen radar patrol have speeders in their sights

Robynn Saucier stood on the sidewalk near her Lee’s Summit home and carefully aimed the radar gun at the black Ford 500 motoring down the roadway toward her.

“Let’s see what this one does,” she said. “Forty-one?! She’s not even slowing down. What an idiot.”

Saucier is not a cop but a citizen on radar patrol.

The 58-year-old retired Southwestern Bell worker is part of a growing corps of people in communities across the country who are using police department-issued radar guns to monitor how fast motorists are driving near their homes.

Lee’s Summit police will send letters to motorists, alerting them that they were clocked speeding by a resident volunteer. Citations are not issued, but motorists are encouraged to slow down.

Moments later, Saucier clocked a vehicle traveling west on Longview Road at 48 mph, well above the posted 35 mph speed limit.

The Lee’s Summit department’s traffic enforcement unit launched the citizen radar patrol about three weeks ago. It is designed to reduce speeding, prevent traffic accidents, increase public awareness about safe driving and allow residents to play a role in making their neighborhoods safer, Police Chief Joe Piccinini said.

So far, about 10 residents have volunteered, said Officer Jason Spaeth, who works in the traffic unit and oversees the program.

“My biggest thing is the awareness of the citizens and for them to realize that not every street is a raceway,” Spaeth said — meaning not every car is going as fast as they think it is.

“But if it is a raceway or if they are speeding, then I want to know about it,” he said.

Spaeth said he drew on similar programs in other states, including Colorado and Minnesota.

“I looked at the pros and cons and took parts of their programs that I liked,” he said.

Police in Shawnee started a similar effort in 2003 called Speed Watch.

One benefit: “It was more effective in showing the people that in their neighborhood, they didn’t have a speeding problem like they thought,” Shawnee Police Sgt. Jim Baker said.

The program ended after three years when funding ran out and the department chose not to replace worn-out radar guns, Baker said. The department now places covert radar boxes in neighborhoods with speeding complaints.

“The (citizen) program worked for us at the time, but our new technology has replaced the need for it,” Baker said.

As in the Shawnee program, volunteers in Lee’s Summit must pass background checks and attend a training session.

Then, armed with radar guns and wearing reflective vests, they start monitoring traffic in their neighborhoods. If they detect a speeding vehicle, they log the speed, vehicle description and license plate number. They are not to stop vehicles or represent themselves as police officers, Spaeth said.

He said it is better if volunteers work in pairs, so one can run the radar while the other fills out the log.

The $1,500 radar guns can be assigned to volunteers for up to five days, allowing for a better sampling of traffic.

When the volunteer rotation is complete, the log of the speeding motorists is passed along to officers who match license information of the speeding vehicle to the registered owner. The department sends a letter to the owner.

Spaeth said that only once has a motorist stopped to ask a volunteer, in not so nice words, what they were doing. That volunteer turned in more than 200 log entries.

“If somebody has a problem in their neighborhood with speeding, we can do something about it,” he said. “This is a cool program because we (police) cannot be everywhere.”

Saucier said she volunteered after her dog was struck and killed by a vehicle on Easter after he darted into the street. She said she was sure the driver was speeding.

About half of the 50 vehicles she clocked over two days recently were exceeding the 35 mph speed limit, she said. Many were going 40 to 45 mph. A few were going 50.

“You always wonder, ‘Are they speeding?’ or ‘Maybe they’re not going as fast as I thought,’” she said.