Versatility at Its Finest
Maneuverability, cost savings, off-roading, community engagement and just plain fun – there are endless reasons for a law enforcement agency to have a motorcycle patrol. The perfect marriage between a bike patrol and a standard cruiser, motorcycles give officers a multitude of freedoms and advantages typical patrol units do not have.
The agility of a bike, the power of a cruiser
“You’re really combining the best of both worlds with a bike and cruiser in a motorcycle,” said Bowling Green Police Department Motor Officer David Grimsley.
Motorcycle units exist as a support function for patrol, and many have the ability to answer most calls for service, work accidents and enforce traffic laws. But unlike being in a cruiser, a motorcycle’s versatility and maneuverability allows motor officers to respond and react more quickly and efficiently in certain scenarios.
“I have the agility to turn around on a running vehicle and get them stopped and identified,” Grimsley said. “A cruiser doesn’t have that ability, and that car may get away and not be found.”
Grimsley recalled a specific incident where the wife of one of his captains had been involved in a hit-and-run accident. She called and gave her husband the vehicle’s identifying information and he relayed it to the patrol unit. Grimsley, who was out on his motorcycle that day, passed the described vehicle shortly after the information was distributed. He quickly was able to flip his motorcycle around, catch the vehicle and apprehend the hit-and-run suspect, Grimsley said.
“[My captain] told me that day that I’d made a believer of him about motorcycles on patrol,” Grimsley said. “I was able to get in there and maneuver quickly. You can manage it in a car, but not without initiating lights and sirens and giving away your location to the violator. I was able do it on a motorcycle safer and quicker.”
But that less-visible, easy-to-maneuver nature of motorcycles can be used in less high-action scenarios as well. Lexington Police Department Motor Officer Billy Richmond said there are certain neighborhoods throughout the Lexington area that are smaller or closer together, and numerous complaints are made about speeding or reckless driving in those areas.
“We can work them in cars,” Richmond said, “but it’s not as effective. If you are performing moving radar and clock [a speeder], you can’t catch up with them (in a cruiser). But on a motorcycle, all motors have front and rear radar and laser guns. They give us the ability to work those speeding-complaint areas easier.
“Similarly, at stop lights, like around the Vine and Broadway streets intersection, you can’t sit there in a car,” Richmond continued. “But we can pull up on a sidewalk and watch and respond quickly. Motorcycles offer more versatility as far as enforcement efforts.”
Beyond everyday traffic and patrol, motorcycles are highly valuable when it comes to special details, such as parades, 5K runs, ball games and processions. Richmond said motorcycles provide a necessary function for these events, acting as that quick shot that can get to problem areas and stay ahead of the masses to keep the way clear.
“In parades, people often start to collapse in on the route, and that can be dangerous for kids on the side of the street,” Richmond said. “There are large trucks that come through throwing candy, and in Jessamine County a child was killed during a parade. So, we maintain the route, and if there is a problem in the crowd, we can address it.”
Go where others can’t
But one of the most beneficial aspects of a motorcycle patrol is the ability for them to go places other units cannot. Sidewalks, alley ways, dirt, gravel – you name it, motorcycles can get there, Richmond said. Specifically Richmond recalls a garbage-truck wreck on the interstate that had traffic at a standstill. Patrol cars could not get to the wreck, but the motorcycle officers were able to weave through the standing traffic and reach the scene of the accident.
In Bowling Green, Grimsley was able to assist in searching for a missing child.
“A bicycle can go anywhere, but a motorcycle can go there faster and for a longer duration,” Grimsley explained. “We were able to check fields, go off-road by Warren Central High School and go places other units couldn’t go and assist looking for the juvenile in a quick manner. While others tried to coordinate, we were already boots on the ground looking, understanding the importance of finding the juvenile.”
In a smaller town, like Berea, there are multiple walking and biking trails. Berea’s electric motorcycle makes patrolling those areas easy, while being nearly silent while riding past walkers and those looking for a peaceful retreat, Berea Police Motor Officer Jason Kirby said.
But Kirby also credits the off-road abilities of a motorcycle with being able to quickly assist a fellow officer in trouble in a park, fighting with a suspect. Kirby said he was able to jump the curb and ride right up to the entangled officer, instead of having to park and run to assist the officer.
Beyond the comfort zone
Becoming a member of a motorcycle unit is not for the faint of heart. Most recall their training as some of the most challenging they’ve ever encountered.
“I’ve never had more of a sense of pride in this career about an accomplishment as when I graduated from motor school,” Grimsley said. “I have a lifesaving award and that is one of my proudest moments. But as far as accomplishing training, this was one of the more challenging things I’ve ever done.
“It’s hot and grueling and physically exhausting,” he continued. “You’re doing something on an 800-plus pound motorcycle that your brain says can’t be done. You have to get out of your brain and develop confidence in what the motorcycle can and cannot do.”
Kirby agreed that the 80-hour motorcycle training was one of the most physically and mentally challenging classes he’s completed.
“Mine took place at the Indianapolis airport in the middle of the summer,” he said. “It was 105 degrees, we went from daylight to dusk, and I wrecked 15 to 20 times a day.”
Kirby, who had raced motorbikes from childhood and began riding a motorcycle at 21 years old, said the class made him realize how much he didn’t know about riding, even after all those years.
“I was self-taught,” he said. “The class made me realize I didn’t really know how to ride a motorcycle, but they taught me there. I could ride safely before, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I would recommend the course because you learn a lot you don’t know.”
So much of the course is different from normal motorcycle riding, Richmond explained. Officers are taught how to take a nearly 1-ton motorcycle and lean it over on its side to a point that seems to defy gravity. This, along with tight cone circles and figure eights officers learn to maneuver through, the course is very taxing on one’s mind and body. Moreover, the way officers are expected to manipulate the bike simply scares many participants, Richmond said.
“I’ve seen very squared-away officers who say they cannot do it,” Richmond said. “We have about a 40 percent failure rate – it’s not for everyone. But with everything, like in high school and college, you have the A+ average guys and the D- average guys. When riding in a motor patrol, you have to know and trust each other’s capabilities, and I don’t want a D- officer with me. I want the A+ guy. So we’re tough on them in class.”
Lexington has certified motorcycle instructors on its staff. Since the training available through the Institute of Police Technology and Management in Florida or Harley Davidson are not offered in Kentucky, Lexington’s instructors have trained numerous officers from other departments as well, including Georgetown, Winchester, Richmond, Fayette County, University of Kentucky and Oldham County, Richmond said.
Likewise, Bowling Green’s Grimsley is a certified motorcycle trainer through Northwest University and Harley Davidson. He is able to train new motorcycle officers within his department, which saves the department money because they don’t have to send every new candidate out of state to attend training, Bowling Green Police Chief Doug Hawkins said.
In addition, Bowling Green took training a step further, and created a field-training program specifically geared toward a brand-new motorcycle officer. Even for an experienced officer, many everyday job functions are significantly different when performed on a motorcycle, like how you make a traffic stop or the way you approach a vehicle, Hawkins said.
“We developed an in-house training program just for our motor officers because there still are additional techniques beyond riding they need to learn,” Hawkins said. “They need to know how to conduct themselves as officers on this equipment. Our motor officers now spend two weeks with a riding buddy to show them how to do police work from the perspective of a motor officer.”
Freedom comes with challenges
People usually think motorcycle officers have it made — getting to ride through town on stylish bikes under beautiful blue skies, feeling free and happy. But the reality is, motorcycle officers face a multitude of challenges patrolling on a motorcycle, instead of in a cruiser.
“One of the drawbacks is you are very exposed,” Grimsley said. “When I’m training new guys in the motor unit, I tell them any sense of protection you feel in a patrol car, you don’t even have the façade of protection on a motorcycle. We train them to keep their head on a swivel, but on the bike you have to know who’s around you at all times and the traffic coming up on you.”
Then there’s the weather — motorcycle officers ride through blistering heat and frigid temperatures. They ride as rain pelts their faces and bugs cling to their helmets and sunglasses. They ride with sweat pouring down their backs or, as Richmond recalls, unable to feel their faces because they ride on 6-degree winter mornings to lead a Martin Luther King, Jr. parade through downtown Lexington.
“It is great to have the ability and freedom and not be standing at a post somewhere waving traffic, but there is a price to pay,” Richmond said. “It’s not always sunny and 70 degrees. As long as it’s not lightning or severe weather, we ride — rain or no rain. So it has its up and downs.”
“It’s hot in summer,” Grimsley agreed. “We wear thicker pants and boots and helmets, so it’s hot, tiresome work.”
In addition, motorcycle officers do not have the same equipment available to them as they would in a cruiser. Items like rifles and crime scene processing kits aren’t available on a motorcycle. And while this is a limitation, Richmond says you learn to work smarter.
Motorcycles have room for some comfort items, such as extra glasses, shields for helmets, gunshot wound kits and a slim jim. In Lexington, a couple of their motorcycles have printers that work with laptops allowing them to take accident reports and do just about anything an officer in a patrol car can do.
However, the most pertinent limitation to motor officers is not having the ability to transport suspects when they make an arrest. Since motor officers are a supplement to patrol, out to help them with the workload, motor officers actually get a little frustrated when they have to call a patrol unit for back up to transport.
“When I’m in a cruiser, I may stop X number of cars and never need backup, need to search or come across a person with a warrant,” Grimsley said. “But it never fails, the first day I’m on the motorcycle, the third car I stop has a warrant and I have to ask for a backup unit. Our whole mission is to help patrol, so we kind of stomp our foot when we have to call them to help us out.”
This is especially taxing when more and more departments are short on manpower. Placing officers on motorcycles takes them out of a cruiser, and when they have to be backed up, it ties up two units for one incident. Manpower issues have plagued many departments across Kentucky, and as a result, some have cut back on motorcycle patrols or even eliminated them as a patrol function altogether, only using them for special events.
Lexington used to have 19 motorcycles in its unit — today they have nine. Due to retirements and attrition, many officers in specialized units at the Lexington Police Department have had to go back to patrol to answer basic calls for service, shrinking those peripheral units, Richmond said.
Likewise, Bowling Green has gone to a part-time schedule, alternating between bicycle officers and motorcycles every week or two.
“This helps justify our existence, and we stay visible and work as many accidents as we can,” Grimsley said.
Show and tell
Visibility is another huge component of having a motorcycle patrol. Motorcycles can be tremendous community engagement tools because they draw people in, curious about the bike.
Grimsley originally was attracted to the motorcycle unit because of how well they represent the department in the community, he said.
“They are very eye catching,” Grimsley said. “Knowing I can build a connection with the community, plus the way the unit operates and the pride I have in the unit, I wanted to be a part of that. My experience is legitimately, positively affecting the community.”
In the two years Berea has had its motorcycle, Kirby said he has made huge strides in the local Berea College campus.
“I didn’t know a lot about the campus,” Kirby said. “Now we can ride through the campus and have been able to meet the students. The police department probably never would have done that. Riding through campus, from a public relations standpoint, has crossed a lot of bridges. We didn’t have the time to walk through the campus before, so it’s been a bridge builder in that way.”
Despite the challenges and occasional limitations motorcycle officers face, departments who employ a motorcycle unit have reaped numerous benefits through the extraordinary versatility motorcycles offer traffic, patrol and special events. Officers who have sought out this assignment are passionate about their motorcycles and the unique difference they can make in their communities with using the bike. They build relationships in the community and help take workload off other patrol units — and those benefits are worth exploring for any agency that has contemplated adopting a motorcycle unit to better serve the department and community.