It would be hard to come up with an area of the country that presents more of a difficult year-round operating environment for motorcycle officers than Las Vegas. Traffic throughout the area is bad and on the Strip and downtown it sometimes doesn't move at all. Tourists are in town to have a good time, which often means more than a few intoxicating beverages and that means drunk driving.
And then there's the weather. Vegas Metro motor officers are on patrol 24/7, 365 days per year, regardless of cold or heat.
Despite what the tourism board would have you believe, Vegas does experience winter. January nights sometimes fall down into the teens, freezing the hotel fountains and perplexing tourists who brought nothing to Sin City but lightweight clothing.
But the real weather concern for Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's motorcycle officers is the heat. Summer highs rarely dip below triple digits, which makes a 10-hour shift on a motorcycle an endurance event, especially for officers dressed in high motorcycle boots, double thickness wool pants, a uniform shirt, and a ballistic vest.
Officer Steve Ritchey, a Las Vegas Metro Police Department motorcycle officer and trainer, says officers working the Vegas streets are actually being baked in the summer. "We took out a digital thermometer and measured the heat coming up from the asphalt and from the motorcycle when sitting in traffic, and got a reading of 450 degrees. It's like opening your oven at home and you get that blast of heat," he says.
Born to the Bike
Despite such conditions, Las Vegas Metro's motorcycle unit has no shortage of applicants. The unit fields 140 sworn officers, including patrol, supervisors, and trainers. And turnover is low. Ritchey says he is fourth in seniority among the motor officers, and he has served in the unit for 21 years of his 24-year career with Metro.
The obvious first criterion for becoming a Metro motor officer is a great love of motorcycles. Officers need to know they will be on a bike for most of their 10-hour shift.
Ritchey says he grew up on two wheels, riding dirt bikes in Pennsylvania before he had a license and riding a street bike ever since he was 16. And he says many of the unit's officers not only ride motorcycles all day on the job, they continue to do so for off-duty fun. "I figure I have 500,000 miles on a motorcycle between on- and off-duty riding," Ritchey says.
Motor Officer School
But not every officer who loves riding motorcycles is cut out for the motor unit. Requirements for applicants include a minimum of two years of service as a Metro officer. Then there is a riding skills test and oral boards. Also, because the Metro motor unit's primary duty is traffic enforcement and accident response, applicants must have experience with DUI stops and be radar certified.
Once the initial requirements are met, applicants enter the training program. Metro's month-long motor officer school covers a variety of things officers need to know to perform the duties of the job and survive motorcycle patrol. Ritchey says the school teaches such basic information as the proper nomenclature for the parts of the motorcycle to such advanced skills as how to maneuver in traffic, dismount under stress, and gunfight from a motorcycle.
Despite what people might like to believe, the officers are not taught to fire their weapons while in motion on the motorcycles like cowboys in a Western movie. "We take the motorcycles out onto the range and park them on the firing line. We then teach the officers how to shoot straddling the bike and use the bike for cover. The motorcycle is almost 900 pounds, so we introduce stress in the firearms training and require the officers to safely dismount it and get behind it in the best possible cover position," Ritchey explains.
But the motorcycle is not the primary problem the motor officer candidates have to worry about on the range. It's the gloves. The unit wears lightweight gloves in the summer and heavier gloves in the winter, especially at night. "You have to learn how to shoot, manipulate your firearm, and do things like reloads while wearing big, thick gloves," Ritchey says. "It can be challenging."
The last phase of training is a 400-mile endurance run and a timed nighttime obstacle course. "It's a demanding four-week program," says Ritchey.
All of that demanding training has yielded some impressive results. Last year the motor unit rode 1.7 million miles on duty and officers only had four preventable accidents, meaning the accidents were the result of something the officer did or didn't do. "We are averaging 427,000 miles between preventable accidents," Ritchey says.
On the Street
Once they pass the month-long motor officer training, it's time for the officers to hit the street and undertake the unit's mission, which is traffic enforcement and accident response. "We handle every traffic accident in Las Vegas Valley," Ritchey says.
Accident response means that much of a Metro motorcycle officer's shift is spent maneuvering through gridlock to reach an accident. "Some 80% of the riding we do is at slow speeds," says Ritchey. "When a traffic accident happens here, unless a motorcycle officer can get up there, they are not going to be able to resolve it."
Ritchey says every member of the Metro motor unit is dedicated to executing its very clearly delineated mission: "To protect the driving and pedestrian community through professional and intelligent traffic enforcement strategy."
How the unit works to execute that mission is spelled out in the acronym DRIVE, which every Metro motor officer learns as:
D: Develop a zero tolerance toward impaired drivers.
R: Reduce the number of civilian and pedestrian fatalities.
I: Increase public awareness for seat belt use.
V: Violators will be cited for all moving violations.
E: Educate the public about traffic and pedestrian safety.
Courtesy and Professionalism
The role Metro motor officers play in giving motorists citations gives many people the impression they are stern if not mean. Ritchey tells people the officers are so mean because he orders them to buy their boots a size too small, which is of course a joke.
What he really tells his students is that the sign of a good Metro traffic officer is to get a motorist to say "thank you" after receiving a ticket. Ritchey says that is accomplished through courtesy.
"Nobody wants a ticket, but nine out of 10 people would thank me at the end of me giving them a ticket. They would catch themselves and say, 'Why did I say thank you? You just gave me a ticket.' They said 'Thank you' because I was polite and professional and the last thing I said to them as I gave them the ticket was, 'Be careful and have a safe day,'" Ritchey explains.
Communication skills are critical to the success of a Vegas Metro motorcycle officer, according to Ritchey. "You have to be able to relate with people and talk to people," he says.
Ritchey stresses to the officers he trains that the work they do has very real impact on people's lives, even when the accidents are not a matter of life and death. "There's no bigger inconvenience for most people than being without their cars. So I teach our officers that it's very important they do a good quality investigation for people," he explains.
The Metro motor unit rides the Harley-Davidson FLHTPI Electra Glide. Ritchey says the unit has been running the Harleys since 1998, and the bikes beat out their predecessors for performance and comfort. "The comfort offered by the bike is important when you need to sit on it for up 10 hours a day," Ritchey says. "And Harley has really stepped it up in reliability."
The Metro Harleys are also a big hit with the tourists, according to Ritchey. "People look at you differently when you are on a Harley," he says. "It's amazing how many people want to take pictures with us, especially the kids."
Foreign visitors to Vegas are also especially excited to see the Metro motor officers. "All the international tourists want to get their pictures taken with us," says Ritchey. "Cops on Harleys, that's iconic, that's American history."