The History of Petaluma Police Department Motorcycle Unit
Historically the gateway to the beautiful majestic redwoods of the Pacific Northwest, Petaluma is located approximately 60 miles north of San Francisco along the US 101 highway corridor. Petaluma is also the gateway to the famous California wine regions of Sonoma and Napa counties.
In the mid-1800s, Petaluma was a key port to Northern California conveniently situated on the Petaluma River, a direct shipping route to the major ports in San Francisco.
On April 12, 1858, the town of Petaluma incorporated and became a California city. Its incorporation 150 years ago created the Petaluma Police Department. As with most cities across the country, the automobile became popular and traffic collision rates began to climb. Traffic collision fatalities became a national issue.
Realizing the mobility and reliability of the motorcycles produced by Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company, law enforcement agencies began using motorcycles for traffic enforcement. Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company delivered their first police motorcycle to the Pittsburg Police Department in 1908.
Petaluma Police Department has a long history of traffic safety is evidenced by the hand-engraved sterling silver seven-point star manufactured by Irvine and Jachen’s Badge Company of San Francisco on January 5, 1927. The special TRAFFIC badge was made for Floyd Drake, the first Petaluma Police Department motorcycle officer. The earliest photograph of Drake on his motorcycle is from 1930. The image shows the entire department posing with then Chief of Police Robert E. Peters. Floyd Drake is sitting on his personally owned ’28 Harley-Davidson JD 74ci Police motorcycle. The motorcycle was white with red striping. In the second photo is a similarly restored H-D police motorcycle from 1927.
In 1936, Floyd Drake retired and went onto become the bridge tender for the D Street Draw Bridge. That same year, Officer Melvin “Noonie” Del Maestro began his career as a motorcycle officer riding a 1934 Harley-Davidson 74ci Flat head. The motorcycle was silver and black. Del Maestro wore a tan uniform with a motorcycle cap, baggy pants and leather boots. Maestro went on to become chief of police working for the police department for 34 years.
Officer Del Maestro was promoted after riding just a few years and Officer Don Noriel took over motorcycle enforcement for a short period. Officer Noriel was replaced by Al Bigelow who rode from about 1938 to 1948. Pictured is Officer Bigelow stopped next to Petaluma Fire Department on D Street riding a 1946 Harley-Davidson Knuckle Head 61ci engine with a specially ordered three-speed instead of a four-speed transmission. The motorcycle was painted silver and had a windshield covered with half canvas and half clear plastic. The black leather jacket with sterling silver TRAFFIC badge he’s wearing in the photo are on display at the Petaluma Historical Museum.
Sometime around 1949 or 1950 the department purchased a three-wheeler used for parking enforcement in the downtown area. The department would later purchase a second three-wheel motorcycle. The picture below shows four officers, two cars, a motorcycle and a three-wheeler in 1948. The motor officer on the left is Al Bigelow and the motor officer on the right is Ed Gilmore. The second picture shows the entire department in approximately 1950. You can see the 1946 H-D motorcycle parked between the two black-and-white Harley-Davidson three-wheelers.
After Officer Bigelow, Officer Dale Moore rode the motorcycle for a short time. Officer Charlie Potter took over for Moore and rode until about 1953. Officers at the time had to do double-duty working the ambulance on occasion. When an ambulance call was received, the ambulance driver would drive to the police station and pick up an officer. Officer Potter was riding to the police station for an ambulance call when he struck an object in the road causing him to go down. The ambulance was forced to take him to the hospital and a second ambulance to the medical call. Potter was seriously injured and did not return to motorcycle duty.
Officer Hank Eslick was selected to replace Officer Potter. Seen in the photo, Officer Eslick is sitting on a brand new black-and-white 1953 Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide Pan Head 74ci motorcycle. This photograph was taken in front of his house on Baker Street. In 2008 we recreated this photograph with our new 2008 Harley-Davidson Police Electric-Glide motorcycle taken in the same position.
In 1959, the department purchased a brand-new black-and-white 1959 Harley-Davidson Duo-Glide Pan Head 74ci motorcycles. As you can see in the original photo, the siren was mounted on the front fender and would engage the tire when the siren cable was pulled.
In 1968, Chief Del Maestro retired and was replaced by Chief Larry D. Higgins. By 1968, the 1959 Duo-Glide motorcycle was nearing its life expectancy. The city manage at the time felt to purchase a new motorcycle was too costly and not necessary; therefore, the motorcycle was not replaced. Finnerty was promoted to the rank of sergeant and tired to purchase the 1959 H-D he rode. The city sent the motorcycle to auction without letting him know and the whereabouts of the motorcycle are still unknown.
The presence of a police motorcycle on the streets of Petaluma was non-existent for almost 30 years. In 1998, Chief of Police Pat Parks obtained approval from the city to reinstitute the police motorcycle unit. With grant funding from the California Office of Traffic Safety, the department purchased two all-white 1998 Harley-Davidson FLHP Police Road Kings.
The first two officers selected to ride the new motorcycles where Officer Steve Johnson and Officer Craig Seekon. After Craig Seekon retired, Ken Savano was selected to the unit and rode from 1999 to 2001.
Motor Officer Ken Savano was promoted to sergeant in 2001. That same year, Officer Dave Cormier and Officer Bert Walker were selected to the unit. Motor Sergeant Tim Lyons took over as the supervisor of the Traffic Unit. Under the leadership of Police Chief Steve Hood, the Motor Unit continued to expand. Grant funding made it possible to add two more motorcycles, including a riding sergeant’s position. The unit in 2002 consisted of Sergeant Tim Lyons, and Motor Officers Bert Walker, Steve Johnson and Ron Klein. The Department continued to use new black and white Harley-Davidson Police Road Kings.
In 2004, thanks to another OTS grant, a fifth motorcycle was added, and Officer Rob Hawkins was selected to ride. Featured in the photo is the unit in 2007. From left to right is Officer Rob Hawkins, Officer Ron Klein, Sergeant Tim Lyons, Officer Steve Johnson, and Officer Bert Walker: Petaluma Police Department Motor Unit 2007.
In 2007, OTS funded another nighttime motorcycle officer position to combat DUI drivers. Officer Walt Spiller became the sixth motorcycle officer. In 2007, the Department began purchasing black-and-white Harley-Davidson police motorcycles with Houston Police Department paint scheme. We also just recently purchased our first black-and-white H-D Police Electra-Glide. In January 2008, Sergeant Lyons was promoted to lieutenant and Sergeant Ken Savano took over as the new motor sergeant.
As our department celebrates its 150th Sesquicentennial Anniversary, we are proud of the Motor Units history in our community. While many departments experiment with different types of motorcycles for different reasons, municipal motorcycle traffic enforcement in Petaluma continues to follow our proven tradition with Harley-Davidson, whose reliability and dependability in Petaluma have been demonstrated for more than 80 years.
Information and Photos provided by Petaluma Police Department. “Petaluma Police Motor Unit History” article and be found in the 2008 issue of “The Siren” official publication of the Municipal Motorcycle Officers of California.