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Ride in the Name of the Law : Police Motorcycles Tested

It’s all facts and stats on the proving grounds of the Michigan State Police, where pretender police motorcycles have no place to hide.

If you need an alternative opinion about a motorcycle it is worth going to the riders who spend all day, everyday in the saddle, ride in stop-and-go traffic, patrol urban streets and country highways, get on their bikes if the weather is good or bad and spend hundred of hours day after day discovering what works and what doesn’t.

It’s a long and exhaustive stress test. Police motorcycles units do this very test all day, everyday. But before that happens a motorcycle has to get into the rotation. Each year several large law enforcement departments provide a comparison of models available from manufacturers for police duty. 

The Precision Driving Unit of the Michigan State Police tests new models of law enforcement vehicles. As just about every four-wheeled police vehicle has at some point come out of Detroit, there is logic to the Michigan police doing this – proximity. But amid the Dodge Chargers, Chev’s plus a variety of Fords are a handful of police motorcycles up for comparison.

In contrast to the four wheelers which present a relatively uniform face to the public, the motorcycle entrants are far more diverse. Even more so this year as the 2015 test included a Can-Am Spyder decked out in police livery. The Spyder looked futuristically Robocop-ish in its police mantle of lights and emblems while providing another feasible option for the police service vehicle with its abundant storage and three-wheel stability and comfort.

Beyond the Spyder, the models up for review have been quite consistent through the years. There have always been a few Harley-Davidsons, BMWs, a Moto Guzzi or two and recently a Victory motorcycle. The Victoria, BC police department made some headlines a few years ago when they purchased a number of Victory bikes from a company in Arizona to replace the police Harley-Davidson models. Over the past six years some of the other bikes tested have included the Kawasaki Concours, Buell Ulysses, BMW F800GTP and the Victory Vision and Commander—a police version of the Cross Country.

None of the models tested are built solely for high-speed pursuit. There are no Hayabusas in black-and-white, no Ducatis or Ninjas. High-speed pursuit is rarely the focus of the job. In reality, a lot of time is spent in the saddle not riding fast. But should you be an officer spending hours everyday in the saddle not riding fast, the minor issues that might be annoying for a civilian will grow more significant for the peace officer. This is where effective hand controls, suspension, windscreens, storage and maneuverability come into play. 

It is obvious from precision riding teams across the continent including the Ontario Provincial Police Golden Helmets that large cruisers can indeed be made to do amazing things within a very small space. History is on the cruiser’s side when it comes to police bikes in North America but Europe doesn’t have that history, yet the other side of the Atlantic is where many of the strong new contenders originate. 

Within Michigan State Police testing program, the results and expectations of police motorcycles are clearly defined. The organization then publishes the results for all to see. The MSP goes out of its way to refrain from endorsing any particular brand of motorcycle but rather conducts the test, provides the data and leaves it to the purchasing department to draw conclusions. That isn’t to say there is no emotional attachment to the product. Harley-Davidson models have been decked out for police use since mounted riders first started patrolling the highway. The MSP rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles until switching to cars in 1941. It wasn’t until 1993 that motorcycles were returned to Michigan pavement for regular patrol use.

Under the MSP program testing of the motorcycles and cars takes place at a racetrack with a road course that simulates the corners and elevation gains and losses that an officer may experience in the real world.

The Police Bikes

The BMW  R1200RTP is a bike familiar to Canadians as it is in use in a variety of locales. With 125 hp it is the most powerful bike that the MSP tested. Also on tap was the Electra Glide FLHTP with the Rushmore improvements including the revised fairing and headlights but without the Boom! audio system. Harley-Davidson didn’t provide a horsepower figure but does rate the torque at 104.7 ft/lb – outpacing the BMW in terms of torque if not horsepower. Harley-Davidson also provided the same bike but equipped with what is essentially a Screamin’ Eagle kit with a factory-spec 100 hp and 100 ft/lb. torque.

Also throwing pistons into the ring was Moto Guzzi with both the California as a cruiser-style police bike and the Norge, which is all business and frankly looks like a police bike out of the box. The California and Norge are equipped with 1380 and 1151cc opposed V-Twins. The Norge with the smaller engine did enjoy a whopping 176-lb weight advantage over its more stylish cruiser sibling.

Four riders throw the police motorcycles around the track, with averages  providing an achieved lap time for each bike. This averaging creates a real world scenario. While all the riders are skilled, one rider may be faster than another on a particular bike. The two lightest bikes in the test were the fastest around the track with the BMW setting the quickest time followed a few seconds later by the Norge. The three Harley-Davidsons tested all finished within 1.31 seconds. Even though the Screamin’ Eagle kitted Glide was quickest, it wasn’t by much. The California and then the Spyder rounded out the final times.

Top speeds were also tested with the BMW the fastest at 141, the Norge at 127, the Harley-Davidsons came in at 113, the California at 117 and the Spyder at 114. The Screamin’ Eagle was dramatically faster to 100 mph than the other two Harleys but it had the lowest top speed. (The fine print suggested that the Harleys were speed limited to 115 mph.) For basic zero to 60 times none of the bikes were slouches with the times ranging from four seconds for the fastest to 6.5 seconds for the slowest.

Every machine needs a place to shine. The Spyder won the braking distance test followed by the Norge, the BMW, the California and the Harleys with 126 feet being the shortest distance from 60 mph and 146 the longest.

And that’s that—just the facts. But if the Michigan test is all about dynamics there has to be some consideration given to comfort, ergonomics and rider productivity. A more nuanced kind of testing is performed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department which also tests the go and the stop but also factors in variables such engine heat, noise levels, ergonomics, suspension and storage. The last test included the 2014 Honda ST1300 (another Victoria police department bike), BMW’s R1200RT-P (2014 model with the old mill), Harley’s 103 cubic-inch Electra Glide and the Road King, two versions of the Victory Commander and again the Norge and California.

The LASD also includes agility because the average patrol officer will have to make a few abrupt U-turns in the course of his or her day. For the most part all the police motorcycles handled the agility testing well—although none could complete a 16-foot turning circle, only a couple couldn’t hit 17 but all could do 18 feet. Following the performance tests the bikes were sent on a 157-mile loop for evaluation of rider interfaces, comfort, suspension—all the real world stuff. The results were a mixed bag as some models excelled in some areas but not in others. The Harley scored high for controls, Victory low for windscreen protection, and Honda middle of the road for comfort. If one bike was consistently ranked well on the touch-feely subjective tests it was BMW’s R1200 RTP. 

Motorcycles aren’t cars – obviously. There’re a greater number of variables. Is there a perfect police motorcycle out there? Not according to these tests, though there are some very good choices. But, as in civilian life, a lot of it comes down to what you want the bikes to do and where you want the bike to do it.

Zero Motorcycles has been vigorously pursuing the police motorcycle market. The California manufacturer’s electric bikes do have some advantages. The bikes can be ridden in an enclosed area as there are no emissions and they can silently make their way through neighbourhoods. On the other hand, a drawn-out pursuit could be a problem with a low battery capacity.

Is there a role for the Can-Am Spyder as a first responder unit? Absolutely. It has the carrying capacity and safety aspects that some of the other units do not even though it lacks a degree of inherent the agility. And as the MIchigan and LASD tests are intended to do, the Spyder provides officers with another option. 

But what of the Kawasaki KZ1000P of CHIPs fame? Kawasaki stopped building the bike in 2005 for North America. It was likely past its due date anyway but the bike had a following. It was the police motorcycle for a generation of television viewers. 

As a whole, the variety of police motorcycles does seem limited considering the wide array of motorcycles available. How about a police V-Strom 1000? It seems like this would be a good platform, and the same could be said of the Versys 1000 from Kawasaki. 

Due to their agility, small size and ability to get where cars and SUV cannot, motorcycles will remain an integral part of enforcement on our continually more crowded roads.  


The agility of a police motorcycle ridden by an experienced rider is astounding. The Golden Helmets prove this point admirable. It can really be a good show – as this demonstration in Sturgis illustrates – with a passenger. Do not try this at home -and certainly not while dressed like that. What happens in Sturgis …

by John Molony Canadian Biker Issue #311


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