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North Huntingdon police tout benefits of motorcycles

| Sunday, July 18, 2010

North Huntingdon police Sgt. David Sage has an easy argument for his department's use of five motorcycles.

"All you have to do is ask somebody what it's like to be in traffic on Route 30 at 5 o'clock," said Sage, a 20-year township officer in charge of the department's bikes. "The motorcycle is sweet, just weaving in and out of traffic anywhere you need to go.

"In a police car, you get into a bottleneck, you're done."

Since the late 1990s, North Huntingdon police have been big proponents of using motorcycles as patrol vehicles. In February, township commissioners authorized the purchase of a new Harley-Davidson bike to replace one totaled in November in a crash with an Irwin woman on Route 30.

Officers at departments across the region note numerous benefits in having a motorcycle, such as average gas mileage of about 35 miles per gallon -- about four times better than the standard squad car -- and a higher trade-in value than that of a patrol car.

North Huntingdon motorcycle officers conduct routine patrols the same as those driving a car. Except for "spike" strips, they carry most of the typical gear -- everything from handcuffs to citation papers -- and have the advantage of swiftly swerving around parked vehicles and going off-road, if necessary.

In neighboring Penn Township, police have been on bikes since 1992. Sgt. Bill Supancic said they're effective for controlling speeding in the township because officers can better hide a motorcycle out of sight from speeding drivers.

The department has gotten a discount on liability insurance because of the amount of training officers complete -- an initial two-week class followed by annual refresher courses, Supancic said.

Sage and Supancic said patrols on a motorcycle prompt more residents to approach the officers than if they were in a car with the windows rolled up.

"They're a good community relations tool," said Supancic, who has been riding a motorcycle for the force since 2000. "It's easy for someone to come up to you at a stop sign or in a shopping plaza and say, 'Hey, how are you doing• What are you riding?' "

Riding policies vary among departments in the region.

Penn Township permits its officers to ride, weather permitting, if the temperature is above 40 degrees.

State police deploy 30 motorcycles at several barracks in highly populated areas near busy interstates, typically riding between March 15 and Nov. 15, according to Cpl. John Spishock.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh police pride themselves on having a metropolitan motorcycle unit that has ridden bikes 365 days a year since its inception in 1909. The 28 officers in the unit attach a sidecar during the winter months to provide enough stability to enable them to ride in inclement weather.

In Hampton, Allegheny County, Chief Daniel Connolly cut his department's bike out of the 2010 budget.

Connolly said it wasn't feasible to continue to have a vehicle that could be used only during certain times of the year and under certain weather conditions.

Motorcycles are a better fit for larger urban areas with tight city streets, such as Pittsburgh, he said.

The township received grants to buy two alternate patrol vehicles -- a motorcycle and an all-terrain vehicle -- a decade ago, but Connolly said the ATV "probably turned out to be the most useful of the vehicles" for the community of 16.5 square miles.

"If I had to do it all over again, I probably wouldn't do it," he said. "I would probably point the money somewhere else."

McKeesport police have two motorcycles and two bicycles for community patrols.

Often the motorized bikes are valuable for funeral escorts and community events, such as the International Village Festival every August, police Chief Bryan Washowich said.

The department's motorcycles were among the patrol vehicles at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh last fall.

"We could never ever think of doing without them," said Washowich, a 15-year city officer who became chief in February. "We do think it's highly effective for maneuverability, and I'd support it throughout my term."

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