Why motorcycle cops?
June 6, 2005 5:56 AM   Subscribe

I was riding to work this morning and pulled up next to a motorcycle cop at a light. That got me thinking about watching CHiPS as a kid, poppin' wheelies, and sitting in the hot Texas sun with your radar gun and no air conditioning. At the end of my reverie, I was left wondering: Why do we have cops on motorcycles? What function do they serve that car-bound officers can't? When the city council gets together to make a budget, what justifications are offered for keeping them around?

Understand that I don't have a problem with them, I'm just curious about the rationales. It certainly seems like a cool idea, but it also seems sorta impractical.

On a related note, I've heard it said that motorcycle cops are almost purely used for handing out speeding tickets, and that, in fact, many other cops look down on them. Is any of this true?
posted by abingham to Law & Government (23 answers total)
 
Wouldn't it be cheaper to operate a motorcycle than to operate a car? Of course the choice of vehicle would limit what the cop can do (i.e., he can't very well cart someone off to jail), but it seems like a good cost cutting move to me.
posted by orange swan at 6:16 AM on June 6, 2005


I don't know about 'other cops look down on them', but around here, they're used mostly for escort duty - funerals, officials processions, etc. They move in and out of traffic better, and can jump a line of traffic more easily (something that happens repeatedly when escorting a funeral, as they leap frog over each other to keep the roads closed). I've never seen them on the highways writing tickets, but have seen them doing escort work frequently.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:16 AM on June 6, 2005


1) Motorcycles are much more versatile than cars. They can go places cars can't. They can accelerate and brake at much higher levels of performance. They can ride through parks etc without as much danger of hitting pedestrians.

2) Moto-cops are a popular crowd moving force at protests. Like horse mounted police used to be. It's obvious that the cops in DC practice this, they move very much like a school of fish, and very effectively cut through masses of people, cut some people out, herd others. It's awesome (in the true sense) to watch.

3) They get to wear leathers and remind everyone of the short step from cop to leather man. (Yummy.)
posted by OmieWise at 6:23 AM on June 6, 2005


I'm generally no fan of the cops, but I think the use of motorcycles in addition to plain old cop cars in policework is justified.

Clearly, the police employ any of a number of different vehicles, from Crown Vics to sport-type cars such as Mustangs; vans, RVs, helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, three axle heavy rescue trucks, horses, tanks with battering rams, and motorcycles. Each serves a different purpose, and there are cases where it would be wildly silly to try to replace one with another.

Motorcycles offer higher maneuverability than just about anything else, and group of them offers a relatively high density of cops per square inch. Even the large Harleys and KZs used by police consume quite a bit less fuel -- at taxpayer expense, I might add -- than a police model Crown Vic. It's also arguable that the higher degree of awareness required to operate a motorcycle is conducive to spotting the sort of problems a cop might be needed for.

Biker patrols have a number of duties to take advantage of their method of conveyance: Highway patrol, of course, where the maneuverability is extremely useful; think lane splitting. Crowd control and riot duty; police bikes are less likely to trample a foot than a horse. Escort duty is another important one. Remember that the purpose of a police motorcycle escort is mainly but not entirely ceremonial. That swarm of bikes in front of the mayor's limo can easily -- more so than a chain of sedans could -- change formation to cope with a threat from any direction.

Just as there are SWAT teams, beat cops on foot, cruiser patrols, and so on, motorcycles fit right into the spectrum of available police tools. Hell, in Golden Gate Park, in addition to mounted officers, the SFPD has a dirtbike patrol!
posted by majick at 6:29 AM on June 6, 2005


OmieWise, why do DC cops have sidecars?
posted by Morrigan at 6:51 AM on June 6, 2005


On a related note, why do all or nearly all motorcycle cops wear mustaches? I noticed this about five years ago when some protestors tried to take the administration building at the U of Ariz. About 40 motorcycle cops surrounded the building; every one of them had a mustache. Most of the regular police here are clean shaven, so it must be a motorcycle thing, right?
posted by mokujin at 7:03 AM on June 6, 2005


One advantage I can see (besides the ones mentioned) is that the cop would be in a better position to apprehend a criminal on-foot without running them over. Plus, it's quicker to get off a bike and tackle someone than jump out of a car and do the same.

Of course, that begs the question: what does the motorcycle cop do with the apprehended suspect?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:04 AM on June 6, 2005


In my experience, most of the motorcycle cops work traffic duty -- ie. issuing tickets.

Also in my experience, most motorcycle cops are assholes. I've even had regular cops pull me over and give me a warning, while saying "It's a good thing one of the motorbike guys didn't get you..."
posted by eas98 at 7:12 AM on June 6, 2005


Beyond the typical hiding in the bushes to write traffic citations--probably 75% of their job--they're essentially faster versions of mounted/bicycle/foot police.

In Portland the motorcycle cops seem to move quickly around the edges of crowds/parades while the mounted police and bike police move within the crowd. A cop in a car would be totally useless for crowd control, or downtown at all really, and horses/bikes are too slow to quickly reach the edges of whatever it is that's being patrolled.

I know for a fact the the bicycle cops are trained to take down suspects from their bikes (ie. jumping off the bike and tackling someone while the bike is in motion), I imagine similar or equivalent training is done for motorcycle cops. As to what they do when they've arrested someone... that's when a car comes in handy.
posted by togdon at 7:41 AM on June 6, 2005


I think the sidecar is used for storage, although it'd be a lot funnier if they used it to cart suspects to jail.
posted by electroboy at 7:44 AM on June 6, 2005


Also in my experience, most motorcycle cops are assholes. I've even had regular cops pull me over and give me a warning, while saying "It's a good thing one of the motorbike guys didn't get you..."

That's because you're in a car, of course. I suspect most motorcyclists would think exactly the opposite! (Besides, after a day of riding, all motorcyclists are pissed off at car drivers, I think.)

Lane-splitting in rush hour is one place where motorcycles shine -- when there's something blocking traffic up ahead on an expressway, a police car won't be able to get to the problem to start directing traffic around it, while a motorcycle will have no problem splitting the lanes to get there and get traffic going again.
posted by mendel at 7:54 AM on June 6, 2005


civil_disobedient: Same as a foot patrol -- detain the suspect and radio for a car.
posted by mendel at 7:55 AM on June 6, 2005


Morrigan writes "OmieWise, why do DC cops have sidecars?"

When I was a courier in DC for several years I have to say that I made a study of the motorcycle cops because they were the only ones that could catch us, but that's a separate issue.

Sidecars--when I asked a cop about it he said that in the winter it was regulation to make the bikes more stable. They don't usually use them in the summer. Note also, there are a ton of different cop-shops in the district, MPD, Sercret Service, Capitol Police, Park Service etc etc. They may all have different regs.
posted by OmieWise at 8:21 AM on June 6, 2005


Sidecars--when I asked a cop about it he said that in the winter it was regulation to make the bikes more stable. They don't usually use them in the summer.
But it's my understanding that bikes with sidecars are configured a bit differently, re. weight distrubution, suspension settings, etc., and that the sidecars are not meant to be popped on & off seasonally. Am I wrong on this?
posted by Tubes at 8:35 AM on June 6, 2005


On a related note, why do all or nearly all motorcycle cops wear mustaches?

Bug strainer.
posted by kindall at 8:47 AM on June 6, 2005


I wonder if there is a certain attraction/mystique to using a motorcycle for traffic duty, akin to cops preferring revolvers to modern clip-loading sidearms.
posted by Corpus Callosum at 9:06 AM on June 6, 2005


Re-configuration of the bike is not that big a deal, Tubes. For more problematic is that driving a sidehack is a completely different skill than riding a motorcycle
posted by mojohand at 9:12 AM on June 6, 2005


I ride a motorcycle and love it, but I would never ever want to be a motorcycle cop. They're riding around in traffic all day wearing short-sleeve shirts and open-face helmets on ancient Harleys and Kawasakis. The only justification I've heard for the bad gear is that the public "needs to see the face." Compare that to a typical private citizen with at least a full-face helmet and leather jacket and a much higher-performance motorcycle.

OmieWise, there's not much of a performance advantage, unless we're talking about some of the new Honda or Yamaha cruisers.

To answer the question: it's likely the maneuverability and ceremonial functions.
posted by letitrain at 11:54 AM on June 6, 2005


letitrain: On the west coast, almost all departments have moved to BMW R1150RTs, FJR1300s and Honda ST1300s. These are all 'sport-touring' bikes, and are exceptionally comfortable and the performance differential is slight in road riding between modern police bikes and modern sportbikes taking training/experience into account. As far as the lack of gear ... well, first of all, these riders are INCREDIBLY proficient. Second of all, they spend a lot of time stopped and can't take off their gear to stay cool. Third, they've got a bulletproof vest on underneath that keeps them VERY warm.

Bikes are useful for several reasons, most of which have been mentioned above. To add to the list, though, In traffic enforcement, they're difficult to spot -- which keeps traffic flowing smoothly, because you don't have the "OMGWTFACOP!" rubberneckers until he goes all cherries and blueberries on someone.
In emergency situations like a traffic accident that's blocked a freeway, they can filter up to the accident much more quickly than an ambulance or a squad car could. There are some jurisdictions like Miami that are putting EMTs on bikes and using them as first-responders. You can fit an impressive amount of kit into the saddlebags of the new generation of police bikes.

As far as motorcycle cops being assholes ... well, like all cops, some are and some aren't. They're often much more safety-minded than patrol officers, and they generally are sent out on a specific mission. But I wave to them when I'm riding, and they wave back.
posted by SpecialK at 12:57 PM on June 6, 2005


letitrain: No, motorcycles have a performance advantage over cars thanks to their power-to-weight advantage. Here's a classic comparison between a Kawasaki 454 (cc) and a 454 (cu. in.) Corvette. In terms of modern bikes, here are more comparisons: Suzuki GSX-R 600 (a mid-level sportbike) does the quarter mile in 11s, same as a McLaren F1; BMW's big sport-touring R1100S bests a Murcielago by a half-second at 11.7.

The Kawasaki KZ1000P police bike popular in the States (think CHiPs) can pull a quarter mile in under 13, 0-60 in about 3 seconds. A police Crown Vic gets there three seconds later, and hits 60 mph 5 seconds later. And that's an old, slow bike: the BMW R1150RT used by the Montreal police for ceremonial and pursuit duties can hit 10-second quarter miles. Any of those bikes can outmaneuver anything that isn't a sportbike (and even then, the police rider is probably going to be able to push the bike closer to the edge than the sportbike rider.)

On preview: SpecialK got it, but I figured I might as well post the times.
posted by mendel at 1:23 PM on June 6, 2005


I thought I might get some flack about the performance comment. I own a 2004 FJR, so I know firsthand how fast these "sport-touring" rocketships are! I'm just not sure how many departments are using them. I know the CHP is using modern BMWs, but I can't see many city police departments investing in a $20K+ machine for traffic duty.

As far as the lack of gear ... well, first of all, these riders are INCREDIBLY proficient. Second of all, they spend a lot of time stopped and can't take off their gear to stay cool. Third, they've got a bulletproof vest on underneath that keeps them VERY warm.

It sounds like you ride, so you've got to know that accidents happen to the best of us. I've ridden since I was 13 years old on- and off-road, done some road-racing, ridden around the U.S., etc., etc. I'm an "incredibly proficient" rider, and I wouldn't go to the corner store without full gear. These guys are riding in dense (in more ways than one) traffic all day, every day. Other guys may feel different, but I would not want to be required to ride every day without proper gear, choosing between staying safe or cool.
posted by letitrain at 2:56 PM on June 6, 2005


I see CHiPs in leather jackets all the time, and I honestly can't remember ever seeing a moto-cop in short sleeves. No facemask on the helmet, though.
posted by LionIndex at 6:48 PM on June 6, 2005


they're essentially faster versions of mounted/bicycle/foot police
And as mendel has by now pointed out, they're usually faster versions of squad-car police as well.
You'll see big Kawasaki dirtbike-riding cops in urban parks a lot now too.
posted by obloquy at 6:57 PM on June 6, 2005


« Older Parade costume building.   |   Who is this Han cat anyway? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.