On August 9, 1908, the Detroit Police Department’s Motorcycle Squad was created to be “ready day and night to make a fast response to any call by telephone from any part of the city for a police officer,” according to the Police Commission’s 45th Report.
In 2018, the Detroit Police Department Traffic Motor Unit is celebrating its 110th year of service. The DPD actually 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.
The Detroit Police Motorcycle Division can be seen here showing off 60 new motorcycles on Belle Isle in 1937. (Credit: Facebook/Detroit Public Safety Foundation)
Currently, the DPD motor unit is staffed with 17 officers. 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.
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.
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.
For more information about the history of the Detroit Police Department, see Kenneth S. Dobson, “How Detroit police reinvented the wheel”, Detroit News, December 22, 2001.
“The thin blue line: Detroit police through the years”, Detroit News Photo Gallery, March 10, 2013.
Steve Pomper, “Detroit Police Department Motorcycle Patrol Celebrates 110 Years of Service“, OppsLens, May 18, 2018.