The Life Electric: You Have the Right to Remain Silent
Johnny Law rides on batteries
More than 50 city, county and municipal police departments now use police-spec electric motorcycles on the job, many of them as part of their traffic divisions – you know, those motorcycle cops who light you up and pull you over to write you a citation for something that you’re absolutely positive you didn’t do. “80 in a 25??? But officer, this old thing won’t even go 80 mph… ”
But of the ever-growing number of police agencies incorporating electrics as a means of saving money and reducing environmental impact, few can claim their electric motorcycles were instrumental in foiling a bank robbery. The Ceres, California, Police Department can.
After completing one of their first test sessions aboard their new Zero DS-P electric police motorcycles last year, Ceres PD Lieutenant Chris Perry and Officer Keith Kitcher were returning to their headquarters when they heard a call over the radio that a robbery was in progress at a local bank. Although the Ceres motorcycle traffic division doesn’t normally respond to such calls, Perry and Kitcher’s proximity to the scene gave them the opportunity to be the first responders to the incident. Gunning their machines to the max, they quickly and almost silently arrived on scene, shortening their response time by jumping curbs and using sidewalks to reach the bank virtually undetected.
At that point, the two officers observed a parked car with a potential suspect inside it. Kitcher stealthily moved in on the car while Perry swooshed toward the front of the bank, hopping over a center median in the parking lot and pulling right up to the door. Just then, an armed man exited the bank right next to Perry, who drew his duty pistol and subdued the robber immediately while Kitcher nabbed the getaway driver. It was a big feather in the cap of an electric motorcycle program that was just in its infancy and had already been met with uncertainty by the department in its earliest days.
“That was the first real test that showed us what these bikes are capable of and how useful they can be in our environment,” Perry proudly stated. “If we were on our regular Harley-Davidson police motorcycles, we couldn’t have made some of the maneuvers we made, like jumping that median, and we couldn’t have done anything without making a lot of noise.”
Even if you live in California, you may have never even heard of Ceres, even though you’ve might’ve passed through it several times. Located on State Route 99 between the larger cities of Fresno and Modesto, Ceres is located smack dab in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. It’s an agricultural town that’s also known as a “bedding community,” home to thousands of workers who commute to and from the San Francisco Bay Area. According to city-data.com, Ceres is classified as having an average crime rate that runs the gamut – murder, rape, assault, theft, drug offenses, prostitution – so Ceres doesn’t exist in a blissful utopian crime-free bubble.
But despite having just 56 sworn officers to serve 46,000 residents, the Ceres Police Department prides itself on being effective in stemming the tide of criminal activity within the city limits. Part of the department’s mission statement is the recognition that personal involvement is the cornerstone of community policing, and it dedicates itself to being an active part of the community through improved communication between the community and its officers. That effectiveness also involves making the most of its limited resources to provide its officers with the best equipment it can afford.
Perry, 39, is in charge of the Ceres traffic division, and part of his responsibilities include reviewing grant information that can help police departments procure new equipment without having to fund it out of the budget. In early 2014, while researching a grant list, he came across a San Joaquin Air Pollution District offer for electric police motorcycles. Being an avid motorcyclist himself – Perry’s personal stable includes an Aprilia RSV track bike, a Ducati Monster S4R, a Triumph 800 XC and a Husqvarna dual-sport – he decided to explore the information further.
“I had heard a lot of buzz about these electric motorcycles, and I read all the publications and watched videos,” Perry said. “I thought, ‘Electric motorcycles? What the heck, it’s worth a shot.’ So, I received approval from our chief to go for it, and I just dove into it. I didn’t have a lot of experience writing grant proposals before I took over the traffic division, but I realized that the paperwork process for this one was fairly straightforward. I wrote the proposal, and the next thing I know I received a notification from the San Joaquin Air Pollution District that they had accepted our proposal and that we would be receiving three motorcycles in the next couple months.”
To understand the reasoning behind the San Joaquin Air Pollution District’s grant, all you need to do is ride through the San Joaquin Valley in the summertime. Simply put, it can be a hellish smog trap. The trough-like topography of the 240-mile long valley, which stretches from Stockton in the north to Bakersfield near its southern end, serves as a catch-basin for smog from San Francisco and Los Angeles while also generating its own fair share from the cities, interstate traffic, farm equipment, and chemical sprays used to work the land that provides a huge percentage of America’s food. In terms of air quality, it is one of the most unhealthful places to live in the country, with cities such as Fresno and Bakersfield consistently ranking among the 10 worst cities in which to draw a breath. Thus anything that can be done to mitigate these conditions is worth a shot, and since electric vehicles produce zero emissions, they are arguably one way to score a small win in the overall battle to clean up the air – and small wins can often snowball into larger ones.
That wasn’t really the biggest benefit to the Ceres Police Department when Lt. Perry applied for the grant – the Zeros were simply a way to try something new. And, as a father of two, he said he is concerned about the air quality near his home. Regardless, with three Zero DS-P units on the way, Perry broke the news to the department’s two other motorcycle officers, Jason Coley and Keith Kitcher. Perry still laughs when he recalls their response.
“I told them, and they said, ‘Great, what are you going to do next? Buy us Toyota Priuses for police cars?’”
Coley, a 17-year police veteran who also serves as the department’s motorcycle training officer, said that he wanted to wring Perry’s neck. It’s an interesting take from a guy who happens to be a tech wiz in his spare time. Cooley, however, admitted that he is not usually the first person to volunteer for something different when the old stuff still works. In fact, he had little experience with motorcycles before joining the department, save for one unauthorized late-night joyride on one of his father’s bikes. Dad never really found out about that one, until now.
“Is that voice recorder still on?” Coley joked during our interview. “Can you leave that part out?”
Coley’s father, a former police chief, is undoubtedly proud of his son, who found out on the day we conducted this interview that he had been promoted to the rank of sergeant. The one downside to the promotion? It means that Coley will no longer be in the traffic division and thus no longer riding motorcycles as part of his everyday duties, something he counts as one of the best perks of the job.
“When it’s 62 degrees outside and there isn’t a cloud in the sky, it’s just awesome,” Coley said. “I look at the guys in our four-wheel cruisers and I think, ‘You just don’t know what you are missing.’ Then there are times when it is 110 degrees outside, and there is no breeze and no shade, and it can be miserable. With all our gear on, it gets hot, and sitting on a Harley can be like sitting on a 400-degree oven.”
In that respect alone, all it took was one ride on the new electric bikes, and Coley changed his tune.
“We got them in, and they didn’t look half bad,” Coley said. “They are dual-sports, so we can ride them off-road, on the trails in our local parks if we need to, which is cool. Once I rode one, I was hooked. I fell in love with the damn thing. You don’t get nearly as hot while riding them. It’s a huge difference.”
The electric machines also excel in another area, sound – or lack thereof. Part of the Ceres traffic division’s patrol rounds include visits to the local school campuses, and Coley said that because the electric motorcycles emit virtually no noise, they can be ridden right onto the school grounds while classes are in session without distracting students and teachers.
“We can go inside the campus and around the campus and not make a big racket,” Coley said. “It’s pretty neat.”
Kitcher, who enjoys the tranquility of running when he isn’t in uniform, was just as skeptical. “I like to be heard when I am riding,” he said. The funny thing is, once Kitcher rode the Zero, he was heard, but instead of the sound of his exhaust note, he could hear the sound of his own voice. One of the first things that the motorcycle officers noticed was how much easier communication is when aboard the electrics, joking that their first ride was almost like a scene out of the old 1980s television show CHiPs, where the officers would ride side by side and carry on a normal conversation. “Only, we weren’t on a trailer,” Kitcher quipped.
“We could really ride next to each other and actually carry on a conversation,” Perry said. “Our Harleys [which are equipped with aftermarket pipes] are a lot louder, and we have to get on our private channel on our radio so that we can hear each other through the speakers in our helmets.”
That simply isn’t necessary on the electric bikes. Coley recalls the first time that they actually stopped for a traffic light while riding the new machines. The quiet was actually startling.
“We were like, ‘What’s going on here? You could hear everything,” Coley said. “It was weird.”
Perry added that he noticed the difference while passing one of the local schools, which had just let out, while aboard the Zero.
“Some of the kids had started their cross-country running practice, and I could actually hear their feet slapping the sidewalk and the sound of their breathing,” he said. “You could never hear that on the Harleys.”
All three men say that being able to hear and communicate aboard the electric motorcycles has been one of the most positive benefits.
“Think about it,” Coley said. “In the wintertime our guys in the police cruisers will only keep their window down a little bit to hear in case someone screams out for help. The electric bikes help with that even more because you are able to hear something like that much better.”
Of course, one down-side the policemen admit is that unfortunately they also hear when people snide comments as they ride past, but overall the Ceres Police Department prides itself on projecting a positive relationship with the community. All three motorcycle officers claim the Zeros have actually helped improve the department’s relationship with the public by providing an excellent conversation starter, something the officers didn’t expect.
“I don’t know how many times I have pulled up to a traffic light or been in the middle of writing a citation when someone will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, is that one of those new electric bikes?’” Coley said. “I’m happy to talk to them about it because it opens up a lot of lines of communication, and anything that can open up lines of communication with the public is a good thing.”
Kitcher cited a recent street fair where he allowed local youths to have their photos taken on his electric motorcycle.
“There must have been about 50 or 60 kids, and I just picked them up and put them on the bike,” Kitcher said. “You don’t really want to try and do that on the Harley because you have to worry about them getting burned on the engine or the pipes.”
When dealing with the enforcement side of the job, the most important part, the quiet nature of the Zeros is also a tactical advantage. That’s something Coley was reminded of when he was recently dealing with some issues related to Ceres’ homeless population.
“There was a guy sitting in front of one of our local stores,” Coley said. “He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was just reading a newspaper, and he was crouched down with his hood up. I rolled right up on him until my front tire was right next to him, and he never heard me. His buddy was coming from the other way and said, ‘Hi, officer’. The guy with the newspaper looked up at me, and he was in shock. He said, “Man, I didn’t even hear you!”
The bank heist tale also reflects other advantages the Zeros have over their heavier gasoline-powered sisters: increased versatility and maneuverability. Weighing at just over 400 lbs., they are about half the weight of a full-dressed police Harley, and their direct-drive transmissions allow them to quickly achieve a top speed of 98 mph. For his part, Kitcher wishes they were even quicker, but he agrees with Coley and Perry that the lighter, narrower and quicker-handling Zeros make it far easier to negotiate unconventional routes than the big Harley baggers.
“When we are watching traffic we can easily jump a median, or if we are patrolling around a business, we can just ride up and down the stairs,” he said. “That’s another thing you can’t do with a Harley or you’re liable to knock the sidestand spring off of it. I know because I’ve done it.”
For the most part, advancements in technology are expected to make the police more effective in doing their job. Of late, items such as handheld electronic ticket writers and laser-technology Lidar speed guns have helped the Ceres Police Department to become more accurate and more efficient. Perry views the Zeros the same way.
“Take the Bluetooth technology in our headsets,” Perry said. “It’s a highly effective way to communicate, and we don’t even think about it anymore. And with the Zeros, just look at the smartphone app that we have. It allows us to diagnose any service issues or set the maximum speed or control the engine braking of the bikes right from our phones.”
In terms of their cost effectiveness and minimal environmental impact, the electric motorcycles also fit right in with the Ceres Police Department’s program. They have proved themselves as far as the Ceres motorcycle officers are concerned, and all three said that they can envision a time when gasoline-powered police motorcycles could become a thing of the past.
“Sure,” Kitcher said. “It’s coming,” although Coley adds he doesn’t think that will happen in sprawling communities like Ceres for a little while longer.
“I think that they are going to have to get a little bit better in terms of range for our purposes here, and I’m sure that they will,” Coley said. “But for major city police departments, like in the Bay Area, I can absolutely see them getting an all-electric fleet. The biggest thing is that if I forget to plug in my bike, with the 8.5-Kilowatt batteries that we have, I can’t go all day. But, I also live outside of town, so some of my riding to and from work is at sustained speeds above 50 mph, and that draws more power from the battery. If I start in town on a full charge, it will run all day with no problem.”
Perry said that the initial resistance among police departments to make a wholesale change to something like an electric motorcycle is not surprising, and he is a good authority there as he often travels to other towns in northern California to demonstrate the Zeros for departments that show an interest in them. To him, it’s usually just a matter of these departments seeing that they do perform as intended. Getting past the mental roadblocks set by tradition-bound departments is another matter.
Perry explains it this way: “I’m a dirtbike guy, and I always said that I would never give up my two-stroke, but then the four-strokes came along and I realized how much better they were. But then I said that I would stick with a carbureted four-stroke and not go with a fuel-injected bike. Pretty soon you realize how much easier they are because you don’t have to mess with adjustments for different altitudes. Now I love my fuel-injected dirtbike because I don’t have to mess with it at all. The electric bikes are the same way. They are practically maintenance-free.”
They’re also cost-effective. Doing some quick math, Perry figured that the cost to maintain the Zeros compared to the Harleys runs about $1 per day vs. $15-20 per day with the Harley. Electricity is cheap and renewable, and electric motorcycles don’t require periodic oil and filter changes. That can be a huge savings for police departments, especially those that have seen their budgets shrink.
“We still have to change tires and brake pads and things like that, and we do that in house. But the batteries are good for something like a million hours. We will have worn out the rest of the bike before we have to change them.”
Nothing is perfect – the officers would like to see the police units come with better brakes, for example (Zero upgraded the brakes on its 2015 models -Ed), but overall the electric bikes have done everything asked of them, and they’ve done so competently and reliably. More reliably than, say, the gate that allows entry into the Ceres Police Department’s emergency vehicle parking area. Just as we wrapped up our day with the officers, Perry was holding the sliding electric gate open for us, or at least he thought he was. The heavy steel gate didn’t sense his presence and promptly slammed into the side of his Zero. Perry hit the throttle and saved a high-side but at the expense of one totaled saddlebag.
“I thought that the gate had a sensor on it, but it obviously didn’t know I was there, so I just gassed it as quickly as I could to get away from it,” Perry said. “I’ve gone through that gate hundreds of times, and that never happens, but even if they won’t trip a gate sensor, with what we have into these bikes, we’re still way, way ahead of the game on them.”