There’s some debate as to when the first motorcycle was used in police work. Haley-Davidson says the Detroit, Michigan Police Department was the first purchaser of police motorcycles from them in 1908, some 111 years ago. The first official motorcycle unit in a police department is said to have been the one organized by Berkeley, California in 1911. The City of Evanston, Illinois claims to have purchased a belt-driven bike for its first motorcycle officer in 1908 as well. And the northwest’s own Portland, Oregon Police Bureau says they had a police officer who used his own personal motorcycle to patrol the streets of the Rose City in 1909.
Suffice to say that there is a lot of history of police units using motorcycles, and it’s pretty safe to say that as long as there have been motorcycles, police departments have been using them. Indeed, they have become somewhat iconic in the law enforcement world. Everyone knows what a police motorcycle is like, and they have been a feature in movies from the Terminator series to the TV show CHiPs – although the CHiPs guys rode Kawasaki’s.
Police have tended to like motorcycles for the same reason we all ride – speed, pick-up, maneuverability in traffic to name a few reasons. They are ideal for traffic control and enforcement. In fact, the City of Desert Hot Springs, California (where I serve as an elected city council member these days), just purchased two motorcycles and hired two new officers for traffic enforcement in this city of 30,000 in the Coachella Valley. Try as I might to get them to buy Harley’s, they had to buy BMW’s for the job – as air-cooled Harley’s just don’t like the summer 125-degree days we have here. In years past, all the major motorcycle manufacturers offered police versions of their bikes – and you could pick them up used from dealers after their police duties were over, minus the fun parts, the sirens and lights. Kawasaki discontinued police bikes in 2005, leaving Harley and BMW to have the US market. And now who knows how long that will last.
It seems police motorcycles may be riding into the sunset. Sadly, the city of St. Paul, Minnesota has decided to disband its police motorcycle unit. It’s not cost, or lack of need that’s forced half of the twin-cities to divest itself of its motorcycle unit – it’s safety. The city actually feels that riding is too dangerous for police work! And here I thought chasing down armed criminals were dangerous! Silly me. It’s riding a motorcycle that is the most dangerous thing a police officer can do.
And what exactly is so dangerous that the city of St. Paul needs to disband both the motorcycle as well as their horse mounted units in their city? “Increasing safety concerns due to distracted drivers” according to the city. Distracted driving has gotten that bad. Bad enough to warrant eliminating police motorcycle units because of concerns for officer safety. “As good stewards of the public’s trust and resources, we have to do everything possible to streamline efforts to keep our community safe, reduce response times, and…keep officers safe” the Chief of Police Todd Axtell told his department in an email that was obtained by the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. Distracted drivers – those talking on the cell phones or texting, or applying makeup, or whatever is such a plague that the police department fears for its officers’ safety.
As riders, we face this each and every day – the plague of distracted cell phone using drivers. And I’d even hazard to guess we are all guilty of it to one degree or another ourselves when we are not on our rides and in our cars and trucks. We’ve all been scared or had a close call with a distracted diver at least once and more often than not on a daily basis. I know I’ve fantasized about being a motorcycle police officer and going after the idiot on the cell phone that about hit me nearly every time it happens. You’d think that these motorcycle officers would be doing the same thing.
Nearly every state has a myriad of laws against distracted driving, using a cell phone, texting or what not and many, like Washington, have a law governing all of those activities. Yet the matter seems to be getting worse and worse – enough to scare St. Paul into eliminating motorcycle officers. More laws aren’t going to do the trick.
What will? Strict enforcement for one, but that seems to be a never-ending job. Public shaming? In this day of social media, perhaps. If you are old enough to remember driving back before drunk driving became the social pariah that it is now, you remember that it wasn’t always seen as “that big of a deal”. Kind of like texting and talking on the phone are viewed now. What needs to happen is a massive public shift in opinion on the dangers of distracted driving. It took the organization “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” years to turn that ship around. We need a similar effort on distracted driving today, and drunk driving is still a problem, though not as pervasive as it once was. Maybe it needs to come from the motorcycle community, standing up and screaming at the top of our lungs “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” like the character of news-anchor Howard Beal did in the 1975 film “Network”.
But until that day, I think we’ll continue to see distracted driving treated with a “pooh-pooh” attitude like drunk driving once was. We’ll see more riders killed and injured. And, unfortunately, we’ll may very well see the end of the police motorcycle unit in more cities than St. Paul.
But if there’s a bright side to this, it’s that St. Paul plans on redeploying three of their motorcycle officers to special “distracted driving” targeted patrols. That’s a never-ending job it seems like, and sadly from the seat of a patrol car, not the saddle of a motorcycle.