Evolution of the Police Bike
The history of motorcycles used for police forces (referred to in the trade as “Authority Bikes”), is interesting. All manner of brands have been used over the years in various countries and for various reasons. The last three decades have seen a series of price wars for authority bikes in the United Stares as various manufacturers have had the notion that it would be good for the corporate image for officers to be seen doing their sundry duties astride a particular brand.
Methinks this started in California, where Kawasaki obtained a contract with the California Highway Patrol for the use of the KZ 1000 – by pretty much giving them away. That is why you saw them used on the famous TV show “CHiPs,” and the exposure was a happy accident that I am sure had Kawasaki marketing mavens dancing around the office.
I had a chat a long time ago with a retired officer, and he related his dislike of the KZ 1000. In his time, it was common to pull a car out of a ditch by running a chain around the front bumper and pulling it out with his Harley. He did that – once – with the newfangled Kawasaki, and promptly bent the frame into a pretzel. Here is the first clue that police officers look at a motorcycle in a different way than an enthusiast might!
To their credit, the KZ 1000s took astonishing amounts of abuse, and many are still in use by departments as training bikes. They are repeatedly tossed on the ground, scraped up, and put back into service as virtually indestructible devices.
In recent years the battle for authority bike sales has heated up and cooled down according to the random dictates of the market for civilian bikes and the philosophy of whatever marketing major is in charge at each brand. They are no longer given away, but the price (at least in the case of BMW) is set by the national importer, so the dealers do not have to haggle with the department they are dealing with – which is probably a good thing.
Authority bikes also differ in spec from standard machines – more or less depending on the machine and the requirements of the department. Larger electronic generating capacity and storage is needed for the strobe lights, sirens, computers, and so forth, and they often have different gear ratios for better acceleration with the inherent compromise of lower ultimate top speed.
A few years ago a large sale of Harleys to the Seattle Police Department was delayed for months because the spec called for a “stealth switch.” The bike was a new model and the factory took their own sweet time coming up with a switch that would work with a revised wiring system. And what is a “stealth switch,” you ask? It is a switch to turn off all the lights to enable sneaking up on the bad guys. Such a switch is illegal on civilian bikes!
I always wondered at the practicality of this, as any hoodlum would surely hear an approaching Harley. In fact, one officer I talked to this week told me his Harley was making him deaf! Police Harleys are often fitted with less restrictive exhaust systems in a band-aid attempt to wring a tad more power from an air-cooled engine that is overtaxed most of the time when carrying the officer and the miscellaneous safety and apprehension gear required.
Different departments and individual officers have their own likes and dislikes, and the chap ordering the bikes may in fact not be the person who rides it, which makes thing more complicated. Some departments feel that this is America, and that is that, and thus only an American bike will do – which means Harley. This avoids the reality that many of the subsystems of a Harley – the tires, electrics, fuel injection, lighting systems, and on and on – may not in fact be made in America. Victory is now evidently entering this market with a bike that might or might not be considered to be “American,” but I know nothing of the model.
I have spoken to officers who prefer the BMW R 1200 RTP model for many reasons, but the BMW is a non-starter idea with the guy in their department who places the order – creating some muttering in the ranks.
The culture of motor officers also needs to be considered. From my experience, it is an extremely macho and egotistical culture infused with enormous pride, and I do not mean for that to be a put down. You need to have a lot of confidence in yourself, your skills, your motorcycle, and your partners to succeed as a motor officer. In recent years this is undergoing gradual change as, for one thing, there are several women CHiP motor officers and a few in Oregon and elsewhere.
In such a culture it is difficult to just breeze in and do a quick tour of the features of the motorcycle, as the officers are (justifiably) leery of “outsiders” who look like they are selling something – even if you were invited there to – sell something. You can solve this problem by keeping your mouth shut, listening, taking your time, and showing you can ride a motorcycle with some competence and are not a know it all and an idiot – then you can have a conversation!
Motor officers also need a thick skin, the ability to work long hours in inclement weather, and the ability to react quickly to situations – often multiples of them. It is a very complex and difficult job, and I would not want to do it. It breeds a degree of separateness from other officers, not to mention civilians, that is entirely logical. And – you need a sense of humor.
One of my most fun work days ever was a golf tournament put on by a police officers association. The dealership had provided a new Harley as a hole in one prize, and my job was to meet and greet and be the official observer if someone actually scored a hole in one. Nobody did, as was my experience at about 20 such tournaments. Many of the golfers were retired motor officers, and the time waiting at the tee box on a par 3 hole while the preceding foursome putted out was just long enough to share a story from back in the day. By the end of the day, my ribs were literally sore from laughing! I have never heard a collection of short stories on a motorcycle theme that were as hilarious. Here are two that I recall.
1. Officer is in pursuit over the West Seattle bridge, at night, on his Harley, at about 80 mph. Suddenly he hears a loud bang and feels a sharp stab of pain in his right knee. He assumes the perp has shot him, but as he slows he hears the engine soundlng odd. What the bike had down was strip a spark plug thread and eject the plug, which bounced off his knee.
2. Another officer was in rapid pursuit of a suspect in a heavy downpour. He came to a sharp corner and totally lost it – crashing headfirst into a – 12 foot high pile of manure. He emerged covered from head to foot, and for the remainder of his career was referred to in the changing room as “Shitface.”
At the present time there are just a few contenders for use as authority bikes in this country. Harley-Davidson offers two models, one based on the Road King and the other the Electra Glide. BMW has the R 1200 RTP, the “P” denoting the changes from a standard RT. Honda offers the ST 1300 in authority guise, and Kawasaki has been having some success with an authority version of the C-14 Concours. Again, Victory is a new player, but I have not seen one.
The best road test I have seen in half a century of reading everything I could get my hands on was prepared by the LA County Sheriff’s Department in the fall of 2010. They tested all of these except the Vision, and the report is 72 pages long! There are objective measurements and tests of everything you can imagine, supported by subjective analysis by several officers recognized as expert riders by their peers.
When you have an officer recognized as an expert by other officers you are talking about an extremely high level of competence – a person who can ride on and off-road bikes at low and high speeds and pretty much do anything any motorcycle is designed to do, as well as many things it was not designed to do.
I began to read the report, figuring the Concours 14 ABS model would be the winner, and that is because I had not yet learned to look at motorcycles from an officer point of view. Although the report never lists the candidates in order of preference, the results seem pretty clear by the end.
Since I do not want to type 72 pages of report and many graphs and charts (not to mention pesky details like copyright) here are my snapshot conclusions.
Both Harleys. Too heavy, too slow, too hot in slow riding, and too little ground clearance. At the end of the day, a decades old design overwhelmed by better technology.
Kawasaki Concours. A Saturn rocket ship of an engine that does well at high speed chase and pursuit, but the riding position is too “sporty” for all day officer comfort, and the wheelbase is too long for the low speed agility demanded. I have been told that all of the ones that are in service have had their steering stops shaved 1/8th of an inch to make them more wieldy.
Honda ST 1300. Not bad, and a favorite of many departments. Interestingly, Honda does not offer this model from the factory, but the authority “kit” is installed by selected Honda dealers who market the bike. It seemed like the default choice for some departments as it was not terrible anywhere but also was not terrific.
BMW R 1200 RTP. The strong showing of the RTP may be a surprise, but after spending a few days with officers from different departments, most of whom are on other steeds, the ranking makes sense to me. The BMW has a very short wheelbase, and the shortest among this group, which means it can turn very quickly. Most police work consists of low speed maneuvering in tight quarters rather than the high speed work we think of. Even there, the BMW with adequate power, terrific brakes, and benign handling scores much higher than I would have guessed.
In addition, the BMW has ground clearance the others can only dream about. As one officer explained (he loves his BMW), he often, in the course of a day’s patrol, has to go over a curb or across a lawn or up a dirt road. None of these are a problem for the BMW, but all are concerns for the others, which either could not accomplish one or more of the tasks, or would suffer severe damage doing so,
There are two weaknesses to the BMW. Most officers have been trained on Harleys, and are used to using the clutch as a speed control in tight quarters. Harleys have “wet” clutches, so the officer simply leaves the engine at about 2,000 rpm and fine tunes the speed by slipping the clutch. The BMW has a “dry” clutch and it will not stand what would be considered abuse in private hands. Departments who select the BMW must allow the officers to adapt to a new riding style where the clutch is either in or out. This is not difficult, as long as the need has been explained to the officers.
The 2nd weakness is also a strength. On the BMW almost all of the authority controls for siren, etc, are contained in two “onion ring” controls just inboard of the standard ones. These work just fine, but there is some resistance to this design from officers in our area of the country. They ride 12 months a year, and in the winter months most use some design of muff to cover their hands. They do not want to wear gloves in case they need to draw a weapon, and with the BMW and some sort of muff they cannot see the control. A counter argument is that their hands are captured in the muffs, and a better idea would be to wear light glove that could be shaken off if needed in less time. After all, the BMW has very effective hand grip heaters.
The one control that is not on the “onion rings” is the button marked “info” on the standard bike. On the RTP hitting the “info” button on the left handlebar locks in a 2nd speedo at the speed traveled for later entry on the ticket.
I think most of us have wanted to be a motor officer at one time or another. My own infatuation with the concept ended when I realized that the only facet of the job I would like would be riding the motorcycle – and there is a whole lot more to it than that.
My initial fantasies were dashed decades later when I got to actually ride an authority bike for the first time. I had not realized how much weight the mandatory equipment added to the bike – turning a bike that did not handle well in the first place (a Harley) into an absolute pig. No pun intended. The seat was by far the most comfy motorcycle seat in my experience, and I could see spending the entire day on it as an “office,” but the riding experience was not good.
In recent years the weight has come down drastically as the miniaturization and computerification of everything in our lives as impacted authority bikes as well. The BMW authority model has slimmer saddlebags designed to hold only 15 pounds apiece – an amount that would raise the eyebrows of an officer from the 60’s. There is also a hollow “hump” where the passenger would be on a stock bike for storage of gear – but nowhere near the size of the giant hatbox on the back of the Harley models. So lighter yes, but still- they are not sport bikes.
How can officers catch fleeing speeders on sport bikes? An officer told me just a couple of days ago – “Some of them try to get away, and they could – if they knew how to ride. We catch them in the corners on our Harleys because they have no idea of what they are doing.”
The job has become a little less harrowing in recent years as many departments have adopted a modified pursuit policy. If the chase includes high speeds and will last a while, most choose to back off and rely on their radios and the stupidity of the pursued – and this is usually effective.
But still – almost everybody wants to ride a police bike of some sort. Here is a “suite” of three videos to give you and idea of what the BMW R 1200 RTP is like.
And last – all assumption, inferences, statements, and opinions in this essay are mine and mine alone, and do not represent the thinking, position, philosophy or beliefs of any manufacturer, authority department, or officer. OK?
Copyright 2011 David Preston