I spent several days last week at the NAMOA convention in the parking lot outside the huge Tulalip Casino north of Marysville. An interesting time!
NAMOA is the North American Motor Officer Association, celebrating 30 years of existence in 2012. This organization of motorcycle riding police officers sounds national or international in scope, but is comprised almost entirely of officers from Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. They have an annual convention that moves from place to place; this year hosted by the Lynnwood Police Department, the casino, and other sponsors.
Unlike many professional conventions I’ve attended over the decades, most of the activities of this one actually connect to the work involved. Of course there’s a golf tournament and evening social events, but most of the attention is focused on… the huge parking lot. A variety of “proficiency” courses are laid out with several hundreds of orange cones, usually requiring that the officer navigate his or her motorcycle through a tight and winding course that, to the usual motorcyclist, looks to be impossible. An additional vast area is set aside for general practice with no specific course.
Such riding is a daily occurrence for officers, and adding timed competition to the mix ramps up the attention and effort. There were two identical main courses, as well as a slow course, a “pairs” course, and what amounts to a barrel race similar to a rodeo. Tuesday and Wednesday were devoted to practice rounds, while the competition took place all day Friday.
Different departments opt for police bikes (referred to as “authority” bikes in the trade) made by different manufacturers. Represented here were authority versions of the Harley Davidson Road King and Ultra Classic, the BMW R 1200 RT, the Honda ST 1300, the Kawasaki Concours 14, and the Victory Vision. I was told that only the BMW and Harley come as authority models from the factory – all the others are converted with “kits” from the OEM or aftermarket suppliers. The bikes compete in separate classes by brand, as the performance variables are considerable.
Which brand to purchase enters you into a soap opera of marketing intrigue, including price cuts that vary depending on what manufacturer most wants to have their brand used by officers, local department preferences and internal politics, and the reputation of various dealers. Discussing all of this in depth would take more patience than I have to type or you have to read!
Needless to say, I was there with the Ride West events van with three street bikes for the officers to test ride if desired, joined by the BMW NOA rep with his demo model of a BMW R 1200 RTP. In addition, reps from various dealers and national experts touted the other brands, and vendors for all sorts of products both police-specific and general had displays.
A 96 page document prepared by the LAPD I think I’ve written about previously is the most comprehensive road test I’ve ever read. All of the bikes were tested and rated both objectively and subjectively by very experienced motor officers. After reading it, even though no recommendations are given, it becomes obvious that the BMW is the best motorcycle overall for police work, by a considerable margin, including the overall cost of operation. Still, the BMW does not dominate the market as logic dictates it would, due to the other factors of bias, politics, and so forth.
One of the difficulties is that the officers who ride the bikes are not the people making the decisions. Police work tends to be traditional, and change can be hard to accept, and the older officer making the decision may be slower to adapt than the man or woman spending every day on the bike. For example, Harley’s are maneuvered through tight spot by slipping the clutch and riding the rear brake, and they are incredibly nimble in tight sports ridden as such. BMWs have dry clutches not designed to be slipped for long periods, so there is a training issue there. They can do the same maneuvers, but different techniques are required. Some departments prefer to stick with Harleys because that is what they have used for a long time and that is what the officers know well. In addition, the Harley is “American,” even though in reality we live in a manufacturing world where almost all industrial products have parts from all over the world and may or may not have been assembled in their labeled country.
Tradition is usually a good thing, but can blind people to the need for change and the potential advantages. It is far easier to stick with what you have. Anyway…
As you watch the competition your eyes and brain go through phases. First there is the wonder that this can be done at all, as these large and heavy bikes are sashayed through tight cones and around them and in tiny little circles – at speeds that literally make your head spin.
Once you become accustomed to that, you tend to notice body language. The body positioning is the opposite of what most street riders experience in corners, taken at higher speeds than used here. When I enter a corner, I’m biasing my body weight and posture to the inside of the bike – not “hanging” off to any great degree but at least helping the bike turn in the desired direction with weight loaded to the inside and my hips rotated open a bit. At low speeds the officers are sitting straight up on the outer side of the seat, allowing the bike to fall in to the corner while applying full lock to the handlebars. The officer’s head swivels back and forth, but does not really move at all from a vertical line up the spine. Some officers are using arms and shoulders to turn the bike, while some favor the hips. The really good ones are using both, and the greats, paradoxically, are so smooth they do not appear to be moving at all.
Eventually you can begin to separate the bikes by brand. The Harleys make such a classic sound, and are extremely agile for this sort of thing, but slow compared to some others. The Kawasakis appeared to be incredibly quick, with massive horsepower available at any rpm, and to my eyes, were the best looking. However, they are not the easiest to turn, and I’m told that all of the authority Kawis have had their steering stops shaved to allow them to turn more easily. The Hondas were (to me) sort of the “meh” entrants. OK, but nothing to shout about. Several officers told me of problems their departments were having with the Hondas developing an instability problem at high speed, most recently with a near tank slapper while escorting the President of the United States two weeks previously in our area. As these stories spread, this will become a significant problem for Honda. The BMWs appeared to be the most at ease, due to their relatively short wheelbase and higher ground clearance. The Victory Vision police bikes were, in a word, awful. Actually, many of the officers I spoke to described them in one word, but it was less politically correct than “awful.”
To be fair, most of them had been received by the Victoria, Canada, police force two DAYS before the convention. It can take months for an officer to adjust to a new mount, so this was really not a fair task to assign to them. They do look amazing in sort of a space age way. The front fairing has been removed and replaced with a large chrome angular ring sort of contraption, which functions effectively to prevent damage when the bikes are dropped. This was displayed literally dozens of times, as the Victory is so long and heavy it has a very difficult time getting through the course at all. You either hit a lot of cones, or run over them, or drop the bike trying to turn it so sharply. I was told the cones had been spread farther apart than in previous years to give them a change, but it was not enough. During practice some of the Victoria folks would drop the bike two or three times in one attempt at the course!
One of the best spectator events was the pair’s competition. Imagine putting your bike next to your friend’s with a cord 36 inches long attached to each bike. The attachments are Velcro, so any tension on the cord will cause it to separate. Now the two of you are to ride straight ahead for about 50 yards, and then slow and turn, together, around a cone and then around several more cones making 180 to 360 degree turns each time, until accelerating back and across the finish line. Since it is a competition, we will add time to the mix, so now you have to do this as fast as possible. If the cord detaches – DQ. Every time either of you touches a cone or puts a foot down a 5 second penalty is assessed. Practice showed how tough this was, as a clean run was rare.
The slow course was amazing, but the least fun to watch because the officers are so good. I watched one officer on a Harley progress at about 10 feet per minute, staying motionless for several seconds as a time before slipping the clutch and moving forward a few inches. Fascinating, but not all that gripping after the awe wears off.
I’ve attended a few police functions like this now, and it’s always interesting to note the human interactions and how they evolve. Officers, when you first deal with them, are friendly and polite, but also cautious. I am sure if you have a career where anything you say can and will be used against you, such concern is learned early. By the 2nd day many of them realize I am just there to talk about bikes, and the conversation loosens up considerably, as does the language, and we’re all much more at ease.
At the event I had my F 800R BMW and our demo S 1000RR superbike, and officers were able to take them out for test rides. I never tire of the sight of an officer in full uniform on the S 1000RR threading through the displays to get out to the roads. Some of the officers are life-committed motorcyclists who have a moto-cross, sport bike, or cruiser in their garage at home, while at least one officer told me he has never ridden any motorcycle but a police –spec Harley. Obviously, his demo ride was an eye-opening experience. All of the officers who had not previously ridden a sport bike commented that they could see the appeal and now had a better idea of what some of their “customers” were doing, so that is a good thing.
You have to be impressed with police officers, especially if you can spend time with them in an endeavor that is not threatening to either of you. Here are people who work hard in an often dangerous and thankless profession, and usually mean to do well.
I certainly do not agree with some of the policies they are asked to follow, to put it mildly, but as people they are some of my favorite specimens. Moreover, at an event like this you will soon notice that motor officers are just that bit different from the standard image. OK, a lot different. They tend to be taller, although not always, and are in MUCH better shape physically than your standard model police person, not to mention the great unwashed public. A lot of these men and women clearly devote time to the gym, running, weight lifting, proper diet, and so on – a lot of time.
The timed competition took up all of Friday, and it was intense. On each course a raft of instructor judges watched each contestant closely, the the standards were incredibly high. A “clean” run through the proficiency course earned a 10 second bonus removed from your time, while each cone even touched added a 5 second penalty. The slightest grazing of the cone earned the penalty, which was in effect a 15 second hit for the first one. There was one section right in front of me that caught out most of the officers, right near the end. One officer had a clean run going until quite literally the last 10 feet, when he misjudged the turn into the final stop box and crashed the bike – just short of the finish line. Whay agony! A Kawasaki-mounted officer who had been stunning me for two days had the misfortune to drop his bike – but did not hit a cone while doing so, and picked up the bike in seconds and charged ahead. A couple of cones he did hit, plus the seconds lost picking the bike up, dropped him from contention. It was brutal, but the officers seems to take it in good humor as a fun contest – with an underlying current of ego and skill and bragging rights for the next year.
I’m hopeful that as some departments cycle (sorry) through their fleets and add new “motors,” they will look to the BMW R 1200 RTP as a replacement, because it is the best bike for the job and because that will show that sending me to this event for 3 ½ days was a good investment of time.
Even if that does not happen, it was a valuable experience. When I rode home one night, leaving the van at the event, I noticed that watching the officers all day had made me much more aware of my own body positioning on the bike. I did not notice what I was doing wrong, but was able to be conscious of the many things I was doing right.
Any day that allows me to focus more intently on riding a motorcycle is a good day, and I would think the officers feel the same way for days or weeks after the NAMOA convention.
Congratulations to NAMOA for a fine event, and for 30 years of hard work.
Copyright 2012 David Preston