The History of the New York City Police Department Motorcycle Squad
Organized under the “Office of Street Traffic Regulation Bureau,” the “Motor-cycle Squad” was founded by Police Commissioner Waldo Rhinelander on June 9, 1911, only 17 days after he took office. First “attached” to the Traffic Squad, the formation of the Motorcycle Squad was the result of the increasing difficulty members of the Bicycle Squad were having apprehending speeders.The “old” Bicycle or “Searcher Squad” had been founded in 1895 by then Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to catch horse-drown carriages. But 1911, cars had simply become too powerful and too fast for the pedal-pushing cops to be effective, even with a citywide speed limit of only eight mph. Apparently the idea of catching motorized cars with bikes paid off as motorcycle cops wrote 3,710 summonses for a total of $17,816 in fines from June 9, to December 31, 1911; this at a time when a top-paid police officer made only $1,400 a year. In 1912, the rank of “doorman” was abolished and 193 former doormen became patrolmen. The NYPD spent $1,000 on red “Indian” motorcycles that year, supplementing the $2,940 already spent in 1910 and 1911, and mow there were 25 motorized two-wheelers scattered throughout various precincts, along with two in the storehouse, as compared with only 55 bicycles in precincts and 23 in storage. Any bicycles, motorcycles, patrol wagons, carriages or other vehicles that were deemed “unserviceable” were sold that year, and the repair of all vehicles including automobiles were transferred to the Division of Horses and Equipment. The following year, 1913 saw a dramatic increase in the effectiveness of the Motorcycle Squad in apprehending speeders. Motorcycles were fast and could easily maneuver between cars in heavy traffic, thus ensuring capture of the offender. With only 27 patrolmen and one sergeant assigned to the unit (as compared with 66 in the Bicycle Squad and 494 in Mounted), a total of 16,004 summonses were in 1913 totaling $155,867 in fines (as compared with $66,447 in fines from 12,412 summonses written in 1912). In 1914 the NYPD spent $4,145 on new motorcycles but in return, the city received $200,883 in fines as a result of the motorcycle Squad’s ever vigilant, watchful eye. Speeding had become a real problem even in 1914, as the NYPD recorded 6,718 accidents involving motorized vehicles that year, in addition to 4,867 in 1915 that injured 4,830 persons and killed 179. With statistics as alarming as these, it is no surprise that members of the Traffic Division, including the Motorcycle Squad, took every possible opportunity to lecture student, children and drivers about automobile safety; truly the hot topic of the day. By 1916, the NYPD had 260 motorcycles, 971 bicycles and 343 horses in service, as compared with a total of only 66 touring cars, motor patrol wagons and trucks. By the end of 1917, those numbers had increased to 276 motorcycles, 1,025 bicycles, 327 horses and 86 cars, wagons and trucks. Now too big for a single command, the Motorcycle Division was divided into three squads in 1920, consisting of Squad #1; assigned to the boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx and Richmond; Squad #2; working in Brooklyn, and Squad #3; assigned to Queens. The first wireless-equipped motorcycle first appeared at the city’s 25th anniversary celebration “Silver Jubilee Parade” in 1923. With the sidecar fitted with a tall diamond-shaped “clothesline” aerial mast, the recorder wearing headphones listened intently while the motorcycle operator handled the traffic. Another unusual twist in the unit’s history came in 1929 when the department purchased 21 armored motorcycles and sidecars with bulletproof windshields; six of which were used by the anti-gangster “Gunman’s Squad.” then in 1930, Squad #2 was changed to now encompass Brooklyn and Richmond, and in total, the Motorcycle Bureau had grown to 315 officers, 289 motorcycles, 28 sidecars, and two RMP’s Other important changes include the redesignation of Squad #3 (Queens) in 1933 as the Grand Central Parkway (GCP) Motorcycle Squad; the first certified speedometer testing machine for motorcycles and RMPs in 1953; as well as the department-wide adoption of chemical testing of intoxicated drivers with a device called the “Drunkometer” that November 15th; the transition from red Indian motorcyles to Harley-Davidsons two years later after the Indian Motorcycle Company moved to England, and the change from the traditional red cycle to silver in 1957 and 1958. Instruction for officers was held at the Motorcycle School located on Randalls Island beneath the Triborough Bridge. After the location closed in 1958, another school opened in 1961 at Jacob Rifs Park, in Queens. In 1972 the Motorcycle District merged with the Accident Investigation Squad (which included the Intoxicated Driver Testing Unit), to become Highway Patrol. The color of the motorcycles again changed the following year, this time from silver to the current blue and white, followed in 1977 by a newly created Highway Patrol patch, Indeed, the unit, the motorcycles, the city, everything – except traffic – has certainly changed quite a bit since 1911.
Information and Photos provided by New York City Police Museum, NYPD Photo Unit, and Retired Officers.