Santa Monica Police Chief James F. Keane, who once vowed never to employ another motorcycle officer in his department because of their high injury rate and highfalutin' attitude, has been only too happy to change his mind.
In the first full month of operation in May, a new seven-man corps of motorcycle officers doubled the number of tickets written by the entire 100-officer department in an average month.
Keane, who was a motorcycle officer early in his 28 years with the Santa Monica Police Department, could not be more pleased. He has reestablished the motorcycle corps, absent for more than a decade from Santa Monica streets, to combat a growing traffic problem.
"We had begun to lose control of traffic in the city," Keane said. "I have observed people not only walking against a red light, but being indignant about it. You'd think this was New York, not Santa Monica."
Although not restricted to any one part of the city, the motorcycle patrol has had easy pickings on some of the city's high-speed thoroughfares: Pacific Coast Highway, San Vicente Boulevard, 23rd Street, Ocean Avenue, 26th Street and Wilshire Boulevard.
The officers have stopped motorists doing 80 miles an hour on 23rd Street, doing 60 or 70 regularly on Pacific Coast Highway and doing 60 on San Vicente Boulevard.
One Pacific Coast Highway resident watched a couple of motorcycle policemen in action recently. "It was like a turkey shoot," said the resident, who declined to be identified. "They would finish writing one ticket, stop someone else and start writing another."
Sgt. Jerry Miehle, who commands the unit, said that the increase in arrests (more than 1,400 in May by the motorcycle officers, which is about the same number averaged monthly by the other 100 city police officers) already has had an effect on driving in Santa Monica.
The city's traffic safety index--traffic and hazardous driving citations divided by the number of traffic injuries and deaths--has climbed from 25 to 39, he said.
"We are really just getting started," said Miehle, who was with the department for 12 years before being assigned to the motorcycle brigade. "We are going to write even more tickets.
"We would hope that motorists slow down--and there is evidence that some do. We find them looking for us. But because so much of the traffic is transient, I suspect that we will have no trouble writing a lot of tickets."
The motorcycle corps was established by Keane with an assist from a $291,000 federal grant that pays the salaries of six officers. The city is paying more than $300,000 for equipment, training and the sergeant's salary.
New Radar Guns
The equipment includes sophisticated radar guns that are able to bypass radar detection devices installed in many vehicles.
"I'm not going to give away any of our secrets," Miehle said. "But a lot of drivers we have stopped were angry that their detectors were worthless against our radar."
Keane said that the city has not had a motorcycle policeman since the old motorcycle unit was disbanded in 1974.
"There were far too many accidents and police officers retiring because of accidents," Keane said. "We also did not like the elitism that developed among motorcycle officers. I swore I would never use another one.
"But changing circumstances required a new approach, which happened to be an old approach, one that was commonly used before by all police departments. Police officers on motorcycles are much more maneuverable than officers in patrol cars."
Walked With a Swagger
Miehle said that motorcycle officers in bygone days tended toward elitism because they dressed differently (wearing boots, for example), met at different locations and cultivated a swagger that irritated car-bound officers.
"Let's face it," he said, "you have to be a little bit crazy to be a police officer in the first place, a little bit crazier beyond that to be a motorcycle officer. And not every police officer can qualify to ride bikes. That added up to a pride that bordered on arrogance. We had motorcycle officers who would drive by a patrol car without even acknowledging the presence of the other officers. We have taken steps to avoid that kind of behavior."
To avoid injuries, Miehle said, the training today is much more intensive, including a two-week stint at the California Highway Patrol's motorcycle training center in Sacramento, where the "washout rate" is between 50% and 60%.
In the past, he said, training consisted of a few turns in the parking lot.
"I've been riding bikes since I was 12. I'm now 40, and, after training school, I realized how lucky I am to still be alive," he said. "None of us realized how much we did not know about riding the motorcycles properly."