One of the most frustrating obstacles that I have dealt with as a police officer working the projects in Richmond, VA’s east end is exiting my patrol car into a high-crime area, swiftly and stealthily. The criminal element knows all too well how to use the inner walkways or “cuts” to conceal drug dealing and other forms of criminal activity, such as trespassing or unlawful carry of weapons. In my pre-Kawasaki days, more often than not, by the time I dismounted my police vehicle the word was out and anybody who was doing something they weren’t supposed to, had a chance to escape and dispose of narcotics, firearms or other contraband. This problem all changed in the spring of 2006 when I was fortunate enough to complete the Kawasaki 250 Dual Purpose Motorcycle Program.
The Richmond Police Department began the motorcycle program in 2005. This is the course that all police officers have to pass in order to operate the Kawasaki motorcycles. It is an 80-hour course based on the Northwestern University police motorcycle operator training program. The program for the Richmond PD is divided into two parts: The first part is learning the basics with the motorcycle itself and how to operate it safely in a street-like environment. No previous riding experience is required to get into or to participate in the program. Based on my experience, it’s better to have no riding experience. Many who carry in the baggage of having learned to ride the wrong way, bring with them enough bad habits to get into serious trouble. This program opened my eyes to the fact that my previous knowledge of bikes was just enough to get me seriously injured or worse.
The first half of this course is probably one of the most frustrating and mentally draining courses I have attended. The road course consists of basic motorcycle operation, slow cone maneuvers, braking exercises, and reaction drills followed by a strenuous test that puts all the basic skills together. The hardest part of the first half of the course is breaking bad habits. It is important to listen to the concepts that the instructors are trying to teach and apply them, no matter how unnatural the concept feels.
One basic premise I have come to acknowledge, is that in motorcycle riding it’s not a matter of “if” the operator will get into an accident but “when” they will get into an accident. The instructors of the Richmond Police Department’s motorcycle program prepared us by passing on the tools to minimize the damage or avoid an accident altogether.
On and Off Road
The second half of the program is the off-road part of the course. This portion of the program teaches officers how to maneuver around, over, through, and up different off-road obstacles. Officers learn how to ride through deep mud puddles, climb and descend steep hills and navigate off-road trails. Going through mud puddles that sink a bike to the engine is challenging in itself, but having fellow students watch adds a whole other dimension to that challenge. For some reason there is nothing more amusing than watching a fellow officer disappear into a mud puddle during training.
Learning how to ride up and down steep hills is not only challenging but a real confidence builder. Looking up some of the hills in the off-road course and realizing how steep they were made me wonder if it was possible to climb those hills. The answer to that problem rests on good tires. ”Stay in first gear, lean into the hill and use plenty of throttle,” the instructors say. Soon after completing the program, while riding on my own, I learned the hard way what happens when climbing a steep incline and not leaning into the hill: Always remember the basics!
The off-road course ended with a timed test around an off-road circuit. There was both a maximum and minimum time limit in order to pass the test. One easy way to fail an attempt on the circuit is to disregard the boundaries and go off course.
There is a third part of the course, which covers the use of tactics on the street when utilizing the dual-purpose motorcycle. During this block of training, officers learn how to use the motorcycle for cover. Although the motorcycle is much smaller than a regular police vehicle, the cover provided by the motorcycle is considered better than nothing. The engine of the motorcycle is the best point of cover in a lethal-force situation. To help with concealment, one of the most important things to do is to get rid of the helmet.
Strength in Pairs
After surviving the two-week class with just a few bumps and bruises, I was ready to hit the street on the Kawasaki motorcycle with confidence. One of the first lessons officers put into practice is to always ride in pairs while on motorcycles, or have somebody close by in a cruiser. One night while patrolling one of the projects, I found myself chasing an individual around one of the apartment buildings, by myself. I attempted to call in this pursuit by means of a radio while riding. The suspect eventually ran inside an apartment and I lost him. The key point I learned from this experience is that being alone and chasing a suspect into a dangerous area—while trying to call it in—does not work and is probably not the safest thing to do.
If I can’t have anybody patrol on a motorcycle with me, I have somebody parallel me in a car. This technique is called “bird dogging.” Essentially, I act as the bird dog in the cuts of the project and flush out the undesirables to my partners in the car. In one particular instance, I was riding through a cut with a marked police unit paralleling me. I saw a subject turn and walk in the other direction when the suspect saw me. This immediately drew my attention that something wasn’t quite right and I decided to follow him. When I caught up to him, I asked if he lived on the property, which prompted him to take off running. And so the chase began.
A passenger in the marked police unit joined in the pursuit falling in behind. We ended up chasing this person out of the project and into an open field. The whole time he was running he was holding his right side as if he had something in his waistband. About three-quarters of the way through the field the suspect was slowing his pace dramatically. Before I reached him, he pulled a revolver from his right side and threw it into a hedgerow.
Fortunately, the headlight on the motorcycle illuminated the suspect and I was able to see where the revolver landed. The officer following came around the left side and took the suspect to the ground without difficulty. I realized after this incident how effective a motorcycle can be when paired with a police cruiser.
One afternoon while partnered up with another motorcycle-qualified officer, we were looking for a suspect who had several felony warrants on file and was known to frequent one of the projects that we policed. My partner saw this suspect and a chase ensued: The suspect had at least a 30-yard head start and was heading across an open field.
We cut the suspect off and continued to run the suspect in circles until he collapsed to the ground from exhaustion. My service on the Kawasaki dual-purpose motorcycle has given me an extra advantage in policing the area that I work. It has helped me become a more confident officer and a more confident motorcycle rider.