Bakersfield police are doing away with all but a few of their motorcycles in response to crashes in recent years that have led to the retirement of several officers and cost the city nearly $1.5 million.
The department currently has seven motorcycles, down from a high of about 25 a few years ago. Police Chief Greg Williamson said four off-road bikes will be kept for operations on the river bed and other areas that can't be easily reached by a patrol car.
Williamson stressed that the department's traffic enforcement won't be diminished by getting rid of motorcycles.
"For every officer taken off a motorcycle we're putting one in a car," he said.
The chief said motorcycles offer certain advantages such as maneuverability and a higher vantage point. The latter has become especially useful the past few years as officers can look down from a motorcycle into a car and see if the driver is texting.
But, Williamson said, those advantages don't outweight the hazards faced by motorcycle officers. The position of motorcycle officer is a voluntary one, and those who took it always knew it was dangerous.
"I think the guys like to ride them, but you won't find anyone saying they're safer than a car," Williamson said.
He said he just retired a motorcycle officer last month due to injuries the officer suffered in a motorcycle crash while on duty. There have been several retirements due to motorcycle crashes through the years, and those who have been able to return to work sometimes spent weeks or months on disability as they recovered.
Tasked in 2009 with examining risk management in the department, Williamson saw that the number of injuries and the cost of motorcycle crashes was cause for concern. The department has since been steadily reducing the number of motorcycle officers.
City Manager Alan Tandy said that since 2007 there have been 37 incidents of officers being injured on motorcycles that resulted in worker's compensation. The total cost to the city was $1,490,111.58.
Tandy said he's previously worked in northern states where police departments use motorcycles sparingly because of weather conditions. He said it's by no means universal that law enforcement agencies use motorcycles in traffic control.
The advantages of having motorcycles weren't worth the injuries, Tandy said.
"In comparison to officer-safety issues, I would say anything else pales in comparison to that," he said.
Neither Williamson nor Tandy were aware of any trends among law enforcement agencies in getting rid of motorcycles.
Police Sgt. Lance O'Nesky of the BPD's traffic section said he was a motorcycle officer years ago, and during that time virtually everyone in the traffic section rode a motorcycle. He'd never ridden a motorcycle before volunteering for the position and being trained on one.
"Some guys, it's like their dream to get on a bike," he said. "For me it landed in my lap."
O'Nesky said motorcycle officers are able to move through traffic much easier than those in patrol cars. If they spot a violation, they can drive around vehicles and quickly get behind and pull over a motorist.
Motorcycles are also capable of making tight U-turns in areas that a patrol vehicle would have difficulty maneuvering, he said. Also, officers on motorcycles can make a quicker response to traffic collisions that are backed up by traffic.
Most other law enforcement agencies in Kern County don't use motorcycles. Kern County Sheriff's spokesman Ray Pruitt said the only motorcycles used by them are in an off-highway team that works primarily out of the Ridgecrest area.
The Ridgecrest Police Department uses two motorcycle officers during daylight hours. Sgt. Mike Myers said traffic congestion isn't too bad in the area, but during peak hours and in construction areas lanes can get backed up and motorcycles are the best vehicles to move through them.
Myers said none of their officers have been injured on motorcycles for as long as he can remember. There have been some close calls.
"We've been very fortunate," Myers said.
The area doesn't have the same traffic issues Bakersfield does, which Myers said plays a role in the department's lack of injuries because their officers aren't weaving in and out of traffic as much. Department policy is that Ridgecrest officers don't ride when there's inclement weather, including rain or freezing conditions.
Myers said there are no plans to cut back on the department's motorcycles.
The local office of the California Highway Patrol has nine motorcycle officers and one motorcycle sergeant, and no cutbacks are planned.