Motorcycles are important again for suburban police

Posted: May 10, 2014

On the first day Officer Daniel McFarland took the Tredyffrin Township Police Department's new motorcycle on patrol, he got a call that an elderly man was driving his car on the packed Chester Valley Trail.

When McFarland got there a few minutes later, the man was gone. But people on the trail applauded and high-fived McFarland anyway as he rode by on the 2014 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide.

"There's just something about motorcycles that gets people excited," said McFarland, one of two officers in Tredyffrin's new motorcycle unit.

That excitement is seen in the dozens of motorcycle clubs across the country and by the continuing popularity of TV characters such as Jon Baker and Frank "Ponch" Poncherello, police officers who rode their motorcycles on CHiPS, and Arthur Fonzarelli, who spent much of his time atop his motorcycle on Happy Days.

The people of Tredyffrin, however, hadn't seen their own "Ponch" riding through town in more than 35 years.

That was until the Police Department used $25,000 of its budget recently to resurrect the motorcycle unit, to help officers patrol the new Chester Valley Trail system and the township's parks. About a third of Valley Forge National Historical Park is also the department's domain.

Horses or Segways were other options, but the department decided to go back to what worked in the 1970s.

Police officers have used motorcycles for more than a century. In 1908, departments in Detroit and Evanston, Ill., were among first to buy bikes for patrolling officers.

By buying its motorcycle, Tredyffrin joined several towns in the area, including Parkesburg Borough and Radnor Township, as a member of the Tri-County Regional Motorcycle Unit. It includes 16 departments and about 55 officers from Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Bucks Counties. In addition to its policing patrols, the unit, organized in 2000, also delivers holiday meals to families of slain officers and does ceremonial rides.

The Tredyffrin department's first motorcycle, a 1976 Harley-Davidson bicentennial model, helped escort President Gerald R. Ford when he visited the Valley Forge Music Fair in 1976. The department bought it with a grant to help navigate crowds celebrating the country's 200th birthday. But the motorcycle unit was disbanded after the grant ended a few years later.

A couple of former members of that first unit said they don't envy current officers going out on today's busy highways. But they said they lucked out with upgrades, including better brakes, a more comfortable ride, and headsets to replace portable radios hanging off handlebars.

Don Miller, a Tredyffrin police officer from 1959 to 1991, was one of the handful of officers on the motorcycle unit when it started. "And it was going to be a whole new era," he said.

Miller, 75, keeps photos of the motorcycle in his antique police car and displays them at auto shows. "I'd love to have that thing today," he said, although he called the '76 bike "squirrely."

Some things are the same. The bikes can't carry suspects, and they can make an already dangerous job even more risky.

But the bikes get better gas mileage than patrol cars, at least 40 miles per gallon, police said. They last longer than patrol cars because officers don't drive them in bad weather. They can maneuver through gridlocked traffic and other small spaces.

As graduation season and the Fourth of July near, officers on motorcycles can better control traffic and crowds, police said.

Then there are the less tangible benefits.

"They're a great community relations tool," Tredyffrin Cpl. Kreg Isleib said. Officers seem more approachable when they're riding motorcycles, he said.

Isleib and McFarland, who both also ride when off duty, graduated from the two-week Philadelphia Police Department Highway Patrol Motorcycle Training Program on April 11. Since then, people have stared, waved, and taken selfies with the officers.

The department hopes to train more officers when it raises money for a second motorcycle. But McFarland warns that riding the bike, which weighs more than 900 pounds, isn't easy.

"This is the hardest thing I've done in my career," said McFarland, who has also completed FBI trainings. "It's something I'm very proud of."


BY THE NUMBERS

2

motorcycle officers in Tredyffrin Township.

16

police departments in the Tri-County Regional Motorcycle Unit.

55

officers in the motorcycle unit.

40

miles per gallon of gas for the motorcycle.

900

weight of Tredyffrin's Harley-Davidson Electra Glide.


mbond@philly.com

610-313-8207

@MichaelleBond

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