I got my first motorcycle, a Kawasaki 175, when I was 15-years-old. A Triumph 650 Tiger came next at age 20, and I got my first Harley, a 1961 “Ironhead” Sportster, when I was 22. A decade later, I would join the police department, and a few years later I would be commuting to work on my 1990 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic. By the time I retired in 2014, I was on a 2005 HD Heritage and had been riding it to work every day for 17 years.
I have several friends who are or were in the unit, and though I am an avid motorcycle rider, I never pursued an assignment in “motors.” Motorcycle officers almost exclusively focus on traffic control and enforcement, collision investigations, dignitary escort, and special event assignments (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, concerts), which was not for me. Still, I envied those guys and gals getting paid to ride their Harleys every day—including to/from home.
It’s rare that I can combine my interest in police topics, motorcycling, and writing. An article about the Detroit Police Department Traffic Motor Unit in the Harley Owners Group HOG magazine (#045) has provided me the opportunity to do just that—combine those interests.
Many people believe Detroit was the first American police department to deploy a Harley-Davidson motorcycle patrol unit, acquiring its first Harley in 1908. More significantly, some of the people who believe this are Harley-Davidson Motor Company historians. They believe Harley-Davidson sold its first motorcycle for police use to the Detroit Police Department.
This year, the Detroit Police Department Traffic Motor Unit is celebrating its 110th year of service. The DPD began two-wheeled patrols with officers on bicycles in 1897. With traffic safety in mind, and no motor vehicles yet in service, officers on foot found it difficult to conduct traffic control of bicycles, pedestrians, and horse-drawn conveyances. Bicycles were faster and better able to navigate the congestion and allow officers to catch scofflaws. Here is a short video celebrating the unit’s 100th anniversary in 2008.
Obviously, if pedal-powered two-wheelers provided the maneuverability police officers needed to maintain traffic safety, two wheels and a motor could do the job even better. From 1908, police motorcycle patrols evolved significantly. Aside from Harley-Davidson, other manufacturers such as Indian and Excelsior-Henderson also offered police motorcycle models as many American cities adopted motorcycle patrols. In 1931, Harley added a first- aid kit, fire extinguisher, and wheel-driven siren. Pursuit lights were added as an option in 1935, and Harley introduced an electric siren in 1984.
Currently, the DPD motor unit is staffed with 17 officers. When you read the roster, you at once know that you shouldn’t even attempt to compete for a spot in this unit without significant police experience. The rookie of the bunch is 42-years-old and has 22 years on the department. The oldest member is 69, has 38 years of service, and has been on motors for 18 years.
Some unique distinctions differentiate the motor unit from other DPD units. When people think of motorcycle officers, they think about the helmet, a black leather jacket, and tall leather boots. But these motor officers have two other uniform features of which they take a particular pride. On the DPD, only motorcycle officers have a blue stripe running down their uniform pant legs. And, even more unique, motor officers sport bow ties. But not just any old bow tie; these bow ties are, appropriately, made of black leather.
In any police department, the motor unit is known for traffic enforcement. It’s pretty much why they exist, to enhance traffic safety. And while every law enforcement officer has discretion to cite or warn when enforcing traffic infractions such as speeding, running red lights, and failing to yield to pedestrians, it seems more truth than mythology that a motorcycle cop is much more likely to give you a ticket than a warning when compared with other patrol units. After all, like I said, it’s their specific job.
Being an upper mid-west, Great Lakes-adjacent metropolis, the weather in Detroit isn’t exactly conducive to riding a motorcycle year-round. In the winter (for these purposes, roughly late November to early April), motor units transfer to one-man patrol cars. But that’s the only change in operations. Even in patrol cars, the unit’s focus remains traffic related duties. They simply continue their important public safety function.
According to HOG magazine, forty-year veteran officer Sidney Bragg who has spent the last 25 years in the traffic unit, puts it this way, “Our mission is to write tickets and look sharp.” Reportedly, he said it with a big smile, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that there was a bit of facetiousness to the comment.
As mentioned earlier, motor assignments include escorting funerals and dignitaries such as the Pope and the President. Officer Clyde Turner, a black officer, spoke about some racial issues back in the day when administrations excluded African-American officers from certain assignments. Now, about racial issues in motors he says, “That’s really improved. Now we are all blue.” Turner talked about the privilege he had in 2005 when he was a part of the funeral escort for civil rights icon Rosa Parks. It was especially poignant for him because he was riding next to his father, also a DPD motor officer, who passed away in 2017.
The beginning of the unit’s riding season coincides with the first day of baseball season when the Detroit Tigers return to the ballpark. Before DPD’s motor unit emerges from its four-wheeled hibernation, each member will complete a two-day re-certification program to brush up on any skills that may have diminished during the down time. The unit will ride their bikes until the riding season concludes on Thanksgiving Day. That’s a late date for Detroit, and motor units can expect to do a bit of riding in snow each year.
Many of the unit members also do a considerable amount of off-duty riding, much of it for charity. According to the HOG article, Turner belongs to the Warthogs Motorcycle Club, which was founded in Detroit and has chapters in several U.S. states, as well as Canada and Norway. The club exists to foster camaraderie between law enforcement, firefighters, and corrections. I’ve belonged to a similar Law Enforcement/Fire Fighter Motorcycle Club (LE/FF MC) since 2000.
Coinciding with this anniversary, members of the unit are enjoying the department’s first purchase of new bikes since 2005. The new motorcycles are, of course, Harley-Davidsons. The new bike is the Electra Glide FLHTP. The “P” designates the bike a “Police” model. So, congratulations to the two-wheeled, trend-setting, and ticket-toting Detroit Police Department Traffic Motor Unit.