SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Motor officer training includes learning skills like picking up a fully loaded 980-pound motorcycle, said Chad Gillen, a veteran Sioux Falls motor officer and instructor.
Gillen and Sgt. Travis Olsen, the officer in charge of the motor officer division, said male and female officers who may be small in stature can learn how to properly pick up the fully-loaded motorcycle. They call it a simple skill but it’s not easy, nor is the rest of the motor officer training.
Gillen, a veteran motor officer, and Olsen both work in the city police department’s traffic division in the motor officer area and call it the most demanding training in a police department.
Motor officers are the police with motorcycles.
To get on the seat of one of the department’s eight Harley Davidson bikes, a candidate must first be a patrol officer. Once an officer is accepted into motor officer training, they need to pass the physical skills test and the written test.
Olsen and Gillen said even veteran motorcycle riders have failed.
“It’s a tough training. The reason it’s tough is so we don’t have to carry you to your grave,” Gillen said.
“You have to be able to ride rain or shine, 40 hours a week on a motorcycle,” Olsen said.
Motor officers ride in tight quarters in a park or in street traffic. Officers need to be able to weave between traffic to respond to a crash or a different emergency situation.
Gillen said motor officers are taught to ride as if no traffic can see them so they can respond, react and be pro-active in situations to avoid crashes.
“Police work on two wheels is even more dangerous than in a patrol car,” Gillen said.
How they train
Gillen and motor officer Hector Santo are the department’s two trainers. They train officers from the Sioux Falls Police but also officers from other agencies in the state, including the South Dakota Highway Patrol.
“The training hands down, is the most rigorous and demanding, both physically and mentally, that I have ever done,” Olsen said.
This was a good year for motor officer training in Sioux Falls. Only two of the eight candidates didn’t pass.
“(The typical) washout rate for officers in motor officer training is 50%,” Olsen said.
“We start with the simple stuff first. We start with being able to pick up the bike,” Gillen said.
Trainees must also learn high-speed breaking and swerving. Gillen described another riding technique as clutch and throttle.
Clutch and throttle includes driving at a slow speed without putting the feet down.
Riders must turn 360 degrees in an 18-foot circle.
“That’s equivalent to two parking spaces,” Olsen said.
“By the third or fourth day your left forearm is swollen from using the clutch so much,” Gillen said.
The training also includes cone courses, which are more demanding than they may seem at first glance.
“If you are not looking where you need to go, the bike won’t go where you need it,” Gillen said.
Some trainees may get distracted and look at the cones, and then the bike hits the cones, he said.
A rider needs to know where their head and eyes are, Gillen said.
Olsen described the training to learn how to ride a police motorcycle as like learning how to play a musical instrument.
Just like a musician needs to learn all the pieces to play a guitar, a rider needs to learn all the pieces to riding a police motorcycle, Olsen said.
Being a motor officer
The Sioux Falls Police Department has 12 certified motor officers and eight motorcycles.
The officers are assigned to traffic or park duty, Olsen said. They are not assigned to regular patrol.
Because regular patrol usually involves a transport, vehicles are required for regular patrol, he said.
Motor officers who work in the parks are responsible for checking the parks as well as the roughly 30 miles of bike trails in the city. Motor officers carry binoculars to watch the park trails.
Motor officers also provide escorts for funerals and things like when houses are being moved on streets.
They also issue traffic tickets.
Olsen said he has motor officers who may issue 200 tickets a month and “the amount of complaints I get is extremely rare.”
“Later today Officer Gillen may write 10 tickets and I’d be shocked if I get a complaint from the next 100 tickets that he writes,” Olsen said.
Motor officers are also unofficial police ambassadors because every day, the motorcycles attract attention.
Gillen said a motor officer has to be able to deal well with the public.
Popular with the public
Gillen said people frequently walk up to him and ask about his motorcycle.
“People will roll down their windows in traffic (at a stoplight) and want to talk…,” Gillen said. “The funny part is half the time I can’t hear them.”
Even when he can hear, he really can’t interact at a stoplight, for example, Gillen said.
“It’s nice to get in the downtown. Lots of people want to say, ‘Hi,'” Olsen said.
In sun and heat
A few record temperatures have been set this year. Motor officers have been working in the summer heat.
Motor officers must wear their full gear including the high boots, helmet and bulletproof vest.
It gets hot in the summer.
“I have a 40 ounce (water container) and I fill it three times a day,” Gillen said.
Soto used to work as motor officer in California. He shared the tactic of stopping at stores to cool off in walk-in coolers, Gillen said.
“I know the best beer caves in the city,” Gillen said. The beer caves are the walk-in coolers commonly used in newer convenience stores.
“You go in there and cool off,” Gillen said. Motor officers carry an iPad and those cool off in the coolers as well.
Small ice packs or compress packs tucked under the uniform shirt also help officers stay cool in the heat, Gillen said.
Wearing their wings
Motor officers receive wings when they pass the motorcycle training.
Olsen said all motor officers wear those pins with pride.
“There’s something special about being a motor officer,” Olsen said. The pins are a symbol of a difficult training and a dangerous job.
The job of a motor officer can really be traced back to horse patrol officers of more than a hundred years ago, Olsen said.
That is a long proud history, Gillen and Olsen said.
What is on the bike?
Gillen said motor officers memorize all the buttons on the motorcycle. Using the button for radar or the button to announce to the driver to pull over are second nature.
The radio and other options once had wire connections from the helmet to the bike. Those wires have been replaced with a Blue Tooth wireless option.
Each officer carries a portable defibrillator on the motorcycle.
“Parks officers also carry a water rescue throw rope,” Gillen said.