Police Motor Units
The History of Motorcycle Law Enforcement

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National City Police Department

A Long History of Motor Officers

by Motor Sergeant Dan Fabinski

 


The city of National City is located along the southern portion of San Diego Bay in beautiful San Diego County, approximately 10 miles north of Mexico.  National City has an area of about eight square miles and its population of about 60,000 is very ethnically diverse.  Despite its size, National City is a very vibrant and busy town.  In 2008, the National City Police Department's 92 sworn officers handled over 39,000 calls for service, completed almost 9,000 police reports, issued over 3,000 traffic citations and arrested almost 3,000 people for criminal offenses.  Over one hundred years ago, the peace was much slower. 
National City was incorporated in 1887 and is the second oldest city in San Diego County.  National City has one of the oldest police departments in the county.  Form its first days as an incorporated city, the city's founding fathers started their own police department.  Originally, National City had a lone town marshal who not only kept order, but also collected taxes.  The original marshals were paid a low salary, which was supplemented by allowing them to keep a percentage of the taxes they collected.  Many of the town marshals had other employment to make ends meet.  As the city grew in population, additional law enforcement staff was needed.  In 1912, the size of the police department was doubled to two, by hiring a deputy for the marshal, and they were now provided a Ford Model T for their use.
A few years later, in 1918, the town marshal system was abandoned and National City hired its first Chief of Police, H.M. Wright.  Chief Wright had two officers under his charge, a night watchman and the city's first motorcycle officer.  The motorcycle officer position was created to deal with the increasing amount of automobiles appearing in the city.  On June 24, 1921, the city collected its first traffic fine, issued to a motorist who left his unattended automobile running - apparently a significant problem in those days, as some automobiles, like the Model T, tended to slip into gear when left running unattended.  Motor vehicle traffic continued to increase in National City.  The main thoroughfare between Los Angeles and Mexico passed directly through downtown National City.  By 1926, the size of the department had increased to five officers, which were needed to deal with the increased traffic issues.  The police department now had a chief, one patrolman and three motor officers riding Harley Davidson motorcycles.  Back then, the motor officers were required to purchase their motorcycles with their own money.  This requirement continued for the next couple of decades.  Most of the motorcycles used by National City P.D. from the 1920s to the 1960s were Harley Davidson, although a few older photographs also show an occasional Indian.
The 1930s were a busy time in National City.  During Prohibition, one of the main duties of the motor officers was catching bootleggers who were running illegal liquor from Mexico through National City.  The department continued to grew with the population until 1935, when due to the economic conditions of the Great Depression, the department was reduced to five officers.
In the early years, officers were alerted to a call for service by a red beacon light placed on the roof of downtown National City hotel.  When the red light came on, officers responded to a call box to phone the station.  The red beacon light was pushed aside when the first police radio system appeared in 1931.  The first system was linked with the San Diego Police Department's radio system.  By 1937, the city had its own fully independent radio system.
 The 1940s and World War II, brought some temporary personnel changes to the department.  Some motor officers, like longtime motor officer Art Hokenson, traded in their badge and motor for the U.S. military fatigues - to go fight the war overseas - and returning to their motors after the war.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the size of the motor unit continued to grow.  The motor officers continued to ride Harley Davidsons, with the biggest change being the switch from the soft cap to a motorcycle helmet.  The department now had seven motor officers riding six Harley Davidsons and one three-wheeled Harley Davidson Servi-car.  This was the largest number of motor officers in the history of the department.  In the early 1960s, much to the disappointment of the motor officers, then Chief of Police Cagle disbanded the motor unit in favor of a full-service traffic unit, with the officers now assigned to patrol cars.  The department went without motors of over 10 years.
Motors were brought back in the mid 1970s.  Looking at what was though to be the best technology available, in 1977 the department purchased three new Honda CB750A Hondamatic police motorcycles.  What initially seemed like a good idea turned out to be a miserable failure.  The motor officers complained about the Hondamatics' poor performance, making it difficult and dangerous to catch up to speeding vehicles.  The motor officers not so fondly referred to the Hondamatics as the Slush-o-matics, for their lackluster acceleration.  In 1982, the Hondamatics were set aside for Kawasaki KZ1000Ps.  The motor officers were now satisfied with the performance of their motors.
Due to increasing financial hardships within the city government, in 1933 the city drastically reduced the size of the police department from 82 sworn to only 60 sworn officers through the use of layoffs.  Most specialized units, including Traffic, were disbanded for several years.  In 1999, the Traffic Unit was reinstated with two motor officers and a sergeant.  
Two new KZ1000Ps were purchased.  Soon after, the traffic sergeant became a riding motor sergeant.  The Kawasakis continued to be used until 2005 when they were replaced with the purchase of three BMW RT-P motors.  In 2007, another motor officer was added and a fourth BMW was purchased.
Today, the Chief of police, Dr. Adolfo Gonzales, leads an agency of 92 sworn, highly motivated and dedicated police officers.  The department's Patrol Division is supported by numerous specialized units, including Investigations, Gangs, Community Services and the Traffic Unit.  Chief Gonzales has a strong commitment to traffic safety and making National City's roadways safer for everyone.  The Traffic Unit currently has three motor officers, four non-sworn parking enforcement officers for both public and private property and one non-sworn traffic coordinator, who is supervised by one motor sergeant.  In addition to traffic-enforcement and traffic-related complaints, the Traffic Unit also responds to all major injury traffic collisions, authors and administers all traffic-related grand projects and coordinates with the community and other city departments on all traffic-related issue.  Our motor officers are proud of National City's long history and commitment to traffic safety.  The continue to proudly ride their BMW RT-P motorcycles, keeping National City's traffic flowing smoothly and safely.        
1920's
 
 
1977, 1977 Kawasaki KZ 1000 Police
 
 
 
 

Photos and Information provided by National City, CA Police Department