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Uneasy riders

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Motorcycle officers must train hard to prepare for difficult challenges that roll their way

By Ramsey Scott

Any one of the Harley-Davidson or BMW motorcycles lined up at the Jeffco sheriff’s firing range was a bike lover’s dream. 

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And a bad guy’s nightmare. 

The Sheriff’s Office hosted an advanced police motorcycle school for more than 50 officers from 11 area law enforcement agencies, including Jeffco deputies, on May 14-15. The 40-hour course gave the officers a rare chance to improve on their skills and to practice live-fire exercises while on their bikes. 

“You revert to your training when situations are stressful. These exercises create muscle memory for them to call upon,” said Jeffco sheriff’s Deputy Mark Miller, the instruction master for the course. “It’s critical to use the tools you have, to train with them.”

Officers experienced everything from maneuvering their 1,000-pound motorcycles in a variety of conditions to taking cover and using a firearm while getting off the bike. The training took place at the sheriff’s firing range and at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison. The speedway donates the track for the training. 

The goal of the simulations is to ensure that officers have tools to call upon when things go bad on the street, Miller said. 

“You’re building a library of things in your head you can draw from in a life-or-death scenario,” said Jeffco sheriff’s Sgt. Dave Baldwin. “The hardest school (for deputies) both mentally and physically is the motor school.”

And many things can go wrong when an officer is trying to enforce the law from the seat of a motorcycle. Unlike a patrol car, the motorcycle offers almost no cover if officers are fired upon. 

“We don’t have a door we can duck behind,” said Jeffco Deputy Kevin Gallegos.

Instead, officers learned how to use the motorcycle’s engine block, the only real solid piece of the bike, as cover. 

Several scenarios during the firearms training let the officers practice taking cover and returning fire. Another exercise had officers pull over a car and react to an unscripted traffic stop that could end in a ticket being issued — or a gun battle.

“There are as many no-shoots as there are shoots,” Miller said. “We want it to be realistic training. … Not every traffic stop ends badly.”

Traffic stops that go bad aren’t the only danger officers face on the road. They also are vulnerable to another threat that can cause injury or death: distracted drivers.

“People still don’t see us out there,” Gallegos said. 

At Bandimere Speedway, the officers practiced defensive maneuvers and riding in tight spaces that they might encounter when patrolling in a crowd of people.

“Your head is on a swivel, and you’re constantly assessing every situation,” Miller said. “You’re looking at every car, watching the drivers’ movements … all day long, 10 hours a day. It’s exhausting. You’re really spent physically and mentally.”

All the issues and challenges a motorcycle cop faces makes the training one of the most difficult for officers to pass, Miller said. There is about a 60-40 pass/fail rate for the Sheriff’s Office test.

Many officers described the training as the most difficult they’ve ever experienced, including those who trained with the bomb squad and with the SWAT team. Baldwin, who trained in bomb disposal while in the Air Force, said there was no comparison to the stress of being a motorcycle officer. 

“The focus required (when riding) is 100 percent of the time. If you lose concentration for a second, the motorcycle could do something you don’t want it to do,” Baldwin said. “You can take a step backward when you’re dealing with a bomb. With a bike, it’s nonstop.”

Miller said about half the officers who join the motorcycle patrol are done with it after a few years. But the other half, “they get in it, love it and never want to do anything else.” 

Gallegos is one of those who will never leave the motorcycle patrol. He’s been on bikes since he rode at age 4 with his father. 

“The camaraderie between departments is amazing. The motor unit is a very tight group. Everybody shows such passion for riding,” Gallegos said. “It’s hard to explain why we do it. For me, I’ll never give it up.”

 

Contact Ramsey Scott at ramsey@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22, and follow him on Twitter @RamseyColumbine.