The motorcycle police officer has been an American icon for more than half a century. As envisioned by the public, he is a hybrid of a cowboy and a knight, dressed in black leather, carrying a six-gun (.38) on his hip, and astride a monstrous Harley-Davidson. It's little wonder that "motor" officer is one of the most coveted jobs in many police agencies. But contrary to "CHiPs" fantasies, the job is not all glamour, and working a police shift on two wheels is just as tough, if not tougher, than working the same shift in a patrol car.
Like their car-driving compatriots, motorcycle officers handle many tasks. Yes, their primary duty is traffic enforcement, but there's more to working a bike than making traffic stops and issuing citations. Motor officers get the call for parade and funeral details, emergency response when bikes can reach the scene faster than cars, and even public relations campaigns.
Motorcycles offer many advantages for police operations. They can go places full-size four-wheelers can't; they can slice through gridlocked traffic with ease; and they can accelerate past most high-performance cars on the market. But motorcycles have their disadvantages as well. You simply can't load as much stuff onto and into one as you might a patrol car; they can't be used for prisoner transport; they can be frightfully uncomfortable after a few hours of a traffic shift; and they offer their drivers little or no protection in an accident.
After weighing the pros and cons of motorcycles on the job, many agencies choose to field bikes. The question is which bikes to field and why.
There are currently three motorcycle manufacturers that dominate the American police market: BMW, Harley-Davidson, and Kawasaki. And if you ask motor officers about their favorite bike brands, you'll get the same kinds of near-dogmatic opinions that you'd get asking NASCAR fans about the relative merits of Fords and Chevys on race day. It's an interesting discussion, but nobody will ever change his or her opinion.
Instead of surveying brand preferences, POLICE sought out motor officers and motorcycle fleet managers to ask them what they like or dislike about certain makes and models, and, more importantly, what modifications and new features would they like to see on their mounts.
Good and Bad
So what sort of wish list do motor officers secretly pen in their off-duty hours? What sorts of features do they think would improve their bikes and, thus, their own job performance?
To answer these questions, we contacted motor officers across the nation. A typical agency was the Simi Valley (Calif.) Police Department. Located just north and east of Los Angeles, Simi Valley is a growing community with an active police force that includes a strong motor unit.
The Simi Valley PD is also typical because it fields a collection of new and old bikes from several manufacturers, including BMW R 1150 RT-Ps and Kawasaki Police 1000s. Consequently, Simi Valley motor officers and motor fleet managers can speak authoritatively about the strengths and weaknesses of these machines.
From a maintenance standpoint, Simi Valley officers say the BMW Boxer twin engine has a service interval nearly twice as long as the Kawasaki's inline four. This, combined with the fact that the BMW's tires are readily available, tubeless, low-profile, 17-inch radials commonly found on contemporary sport or sport-touring bikes, scores points for the German-made bikes from the Simi fleet managers. However, officers who ride the bikes are more concerned with safety and performance than maintenance costs, and they point out that the Kawasaki's narrow 18-inch tires, while more expensive than the BMW's 17-inch radials, offer run-flat capability.
And in some cases, you have to take the good with the bad when it comes to motorcycle engineering. For example, BMW's shaft final drive means no chains and sprockets to replace, but the shaft isn't as durable under some of the more demanding, out-of-the-ordinary stresses of police work.