It’s Not All Parades and Puffy Clouds

“Doing traffic enforcement on a police motorcycle is not cruising around, in the wind, enjoying the ride.”

Sergeant Allen Noles, City of Grand Rapids, MI Police Department

Editor’s Note: There are not a lot of careers in America where you can support a family while being paid to ride a motorcycle. One of the most visible of these careers is that of a police motorcycle officer. OTL Assistant Editor Ethan Powsner recently spent a morning with five members of the City of Grand Rapids, MI Police Department’s Traffic Unit.

On The Level: How many officers are in the motorcycle unit and how does one qualify?

Sergeant Allen Noles: We have six motor officers total. Of the four here this morning, Officer Walt Tett has over 20 years of police patrol and police motorcycle experience with 40+ years of riding experience, Officer Andrew Bingel has 20+ years of police patrol experience, 1 year of police motorcycle experience, and 30+ years of riding experience, Officer Frank Barthel has 18+ years of police patrol experience, 3 years of police motorcycle experience, and no riding experience prior to becoming a police motorcycle officer, and I have over 20 years of patrol experience with 3 years of motorcycle patrol officer experience and have been riding for 20+ years. We have a new candidate with us, Officer Justin Ewald, who is just starting his two weeks of police motorcycle operators training. So, assuming he passes this training, he will become our fifth motorcycle patrol officer.

OTL: What are the qualifications a police officer needs to become a motorcycle officer?

Sgt. Noles: No prior riding experience is needed, but it’s important that a motorcycle officer already have a proven record of functioning as a police officer, because you can’t afford to be focusing on the basics of how to be a police officer while you are riding a motorcycle. If you first make it past all of the departmental reviews and interviews, you then have to pass the motorcycle operators course. Ofc. Tett and Ofc. Barthel are certified instructors and the pass rate is about 80%.

OTL: Do you have a lot of officers on the force who would like to become motorcycle patrol officers?

Sgt. Noles: There may be, but we have an additional requirement that limits the number of candidates that actually apply – all of our motorcycle patrol officers must also be members of our accident reconstruction team, which means that in addition to good police skills and good riding skills, they also have to have the technical and emotional skills necessary to document and analyze vehicular accidents that have caused serious injury or death.

Familiar controls plus some that are police spec.

OTL: BMW and Harley-Davidson are the dominant players in law enforcement motorcycles. How did it come about that the Grand Rapids Police Department rides BMWs?

Sgt. Noles: In the police vehicle world, the Michigan State Police and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department both have extensive testing and evaluation programs for all vehicles that are used in policing operations. A department, like ours, reviews their technical evaluations of motorcycles and then we perform some of our own comparisons by the seat of our pants, so to speak.

Ofc. Tett: I’ve ridden both Harleys and BMWs and in my experience the BMWs are the best tool for the job. They’re more agile, operate with less heat hitting the rider, they are quieter, and they’re just easier to ride. Another consideration is that when you buy an R 1200 RTP, it’s ready to go out the door with all the lights and equipment you need already installed at the factory. You just need to connect your radio and your laptop. Due to the weather conditions that we experience in Michigan, our bikes are equipped with heated seats and heated grips. If your hands or core are cold, it’s one more distraction from your functioning as a police officer in a dangerous environment. Some of our fellow officers in other departments who ride Harleys do not have those features and you can tell the difference when we are on VIP escorts or safety escorts for an athletic event.

“I’ve ridden both Harleys and BMWs and in my experience the BMWs are the best tool for the job. They’re more agile, operate with less heat hitting the rider, they are quieter, and they’re just easier to ride.”

Officer Walter Tett, City of Grand Rapids, MI Police Department

OTL: It seems that the motorcycles would get many thousands of miles of riding each year. How do you handle the frequent servicing that would entail?

Sgt. Noles: There is less riding on a patrol shift than one would think. You have the various areas that you’re going to be doing traffic enforcement in. But once you get there, you’re basically sitting. We average something like 3,500 miles per year per bike, though part of that low number is because we don’t ride all year. The bikes are serviced by BMW Motorcycles of Grand Rapids. They get the regularly scheduled maintenance and other repairs as needed.

OTL: How is training handled?

Ofc. Barthel: Motorcycle skills are very perishable in law enforcement. Even more so than firearms and other policing skills. It is possible for a motorcycle officer to have work-related assignments and other events occur that can cause him or her to be off a patrol bike for a couple of weeks. We have a week-long recurrent training session each year, in addition to other informal practice sessions. The week-long sessions are multi-jurisdictional. This provides the additional benefit of promoting a working familiarity with other departments since many public events require multi-agency motorcycle officer support.

OTL: What advantages do motorcycles have over a squad car? You aren’t going to chase a fleeing felon while riding a motorcycle; are you?

Sgt. Noles: There are three general things motorcycles are particularly good at doing. The primary one is traffic enforcement followed by traffic safety escort services, such as for funerals, athletic competitions and VIPs, and then parades and other public appearances. There is also a public relations aspect. More people will approach a police officer on a motorcycle to talk, whether about the motorcycle or whatever. Children are definitely more inclined to approach a police officer on a motorcycle. In fact, one of the qualifications skill sets you need to have as a motorcycle officer is the ability to switch back and forth between community relations and traffic enforcement. When it comes to a fleeing vehicle, we will pursue only as long as necessary until a squad car can take over. Radio waves travel much faster than we can.

“More people will approach a police officer on a motorcycle to talk, whether about the motorcycle or whatever. Children are definitely more inclined to approach a police officer on a motorcycle.”

Sergeant Allen Noles, City of Grand Rapids, MI Police Department

Ofc. Tett: Two big advantages are maneuverability and visibility. Riding on a motorcycle allows an officer to see and hear more than an officer riding in a patrol car. It also allows an officer to be less conspicuous when he or she chooses, because people are looking for squad cars and not motorcycles. I can think of a few exceptional situations off the top of my head where the advantages of a motorcycle are clear. Officers were involved in a search for a missing child. Ultimately, the child was discovered by a motorcycle officer who was able to ride into a park and search in there. The child was found near a railroad track running along the park. A patrol car would’ve never been able to do that. There were a couple serious vehicular accidents and a bank robbery, all of which happened to occur during busy commuting hours. Heavy traffic prevented squad cars from getting to the scene quickly, but the motorcycle officers were able to maneuver through and arrive first. One day a bicycle thief had the misfortune of stealing a very expensive bicycle that was equipped with a locating GPS. A group of us motorcycle officers were returning from training when we received the calls about the bicycle and we happened to be in the area. Had we been in squad cars, the bicyclist would’ve been able to escape using the usual tricks of riding through yards or sidewalks or alleys. On the motorcycles we were able to locate and surround the thief while he was up on a sidewalk.

OTL: What safety equipment do motorcycle officers wear? I’ve noticed helmets, but not much in the way of “all the gear all the time.”

Sgt. Noles: There’s a safety trade-off that we have to make that recreational motorcyclists don’t have. Among other things, we have bulletproof vests and our assignments often involve a lot of time being on the motorcycle but not moving. For example, a traffic enforcement detail might involve being in one location for an hour or two but only writing a couple of tickets. If it’s hot out, we can’t get off the bikes and go into the nearest restaurant to cool off. If the officers were wearing “all the gear all the time” they would be distracted by the high level of physical discomfort. It’s up to the officer’s discretion. For VIP escorts or other higher-speed assignments, everyone is required to wear all issued safety equipment.

OTL: What do you notice about distracted driving?

Sgt. Noles: We see a lot of it. Most people aren’t looking for motorcycles, so we can be sitting next to a car at a traffic light, or even riding alongside a car, and look over and see what they are doing. We are no longer surprised about what we see. Accident statistics do not show the full extent of the problem.

OTL: Who rides recreationally and what do you ride?

Ofc. Barthel: 2011 BMW R 1200 RT. Mostly touring in the Midwest. A group of us rode around Lake Michigan last year and we are planning another trip like that around in Canada this year.

Ofc. Bingel: 2012 Victory Vision. I ride on the longer rides with this group.

Ofc. Tett: 1995 Honda ST 1100. I ride to work and also tour with these guys.

Sgt. Noles: I am between bikes. My last bike was a Harley but my next bike will be a BMW.

Ofc. Ewald: I currently don’t have a bike but would like to get one after training.

OTL: What advice do you have for us civilian motorcyclists?

Ofc. Tett: A lot of people equate their number of miles ridden to their experience and skills. Riding lots of miles for lots of years cruising around town doesn’t necessarily test your emergency crash avoidance skills or even your slow-speed maneuvering skills and the same holds for long-distance riders. I cannot over emphasize the fact that riding skills are very perishable. The number one thing I’d practice is emergency stopping.

“I cannot over emphasize the fact that riding skills are very perishable. The number one thing I’d practice is emergency stopping.”

Officer Walter Tett, City of Grand Rapids, MI Police Department

OTL: Any parting comments about being a police motorcycle officer?

Sgt. Noles: Doing traffic enforcement on a police motorcycle is not cruising around, in the wind, enjoying the ride. It’s a lot of sitting on top of a 190-degree motor on a hot summer’s day with a Kevlar vest, motorcycle helmet, and safety gear on with a brief interlude to pull out and stop a violator. It can be grueling and very dangerous. In July, a Dallas motorcycle officer on a funeral procession detail was killed by a drunk driver. It is why the training is so intensive, why not every agency has police motorcycles, and why only about 1% of all police officers in the United Stated are certified as police motorcycle operators. That gives us a sense of pride and a measure of responsibility to all the others that share our chosen specialty.

Ethan Powsner
RA 43840

[Originally appeared in the September-October 2018 issue of On The Level.]

 

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