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State police on motorcycles returning in WVa after 40 years

April 28, 2019

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — After a 40-year absence from Mountain State highways, West Virginia State Police motorcycle operators are about to make a comeback.

As the state’s largest and most comprehensive law enforcement agency enters its 100th year, 15 troopers are completing a three-week training course at an otherwise inactive taxiway at Charleston’s Yeager Airport to become certified as motorcycle operators.

Earlier this year, following competitive bids, seven Harley-Davidson Electra Glides were purchased from Harley-Davidson of South Charleston. The bikes have since been painted in the WVSP’s blue and gold livery.

But you won’t see the new WVSP motorcycles being used in the training program, one of only 10 produced annually by Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety in partnership with Harley-Davidson.

“If you used your own motorcycles here, you could expect to have to pay for $2,000 or more in body damage” per three-week session at the Northwestern/Harley-Davidson law enforcement motorcycle operator school, instructor Joe Langenbacker said.

The Harley-Davidson Road Kings used in the training are no strangers to making body contact with pavement.

“It’s a high-intensity course,” State Police Lt. Col. David Nelson said. “It’s not unusual for people taking the course to drop their bikes 50 or more times” during slow-speed cone maneuvering or braking drills.

“Someone who drops a bike only 15 or 20 times in this training is rare,” Langenbacker said. “We’ve had people walk away when they found out how difficult the training is, compared to how they thought it would be.”

Much of the training involves making tight turns on safety cone-delineated courses while keeping eyes trained on the roadway ahead. “We start out working at 2 to 5 miles per hour,” said Langenbacker, but move up to about 40 miles per hour for braking tests.

“Our No. 1 task is to teach people to be good at braking to avoid hazards on the roadway or impact with other vehicles,” he said. “We teach them to stay on their tires and never put a bike down to come to a stop. That puts the operator out of control.”

Instruction also takes place on steering and counter-steering and basic motorcycle-borne law enforcement procedures.

The group taking part in the training at Yeager Airport includes 34 students. In addition to the 15 West Virginia State Police troopers, there are students from police agencies in Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Canada. Several of the students are being trained to become instructors.

Langenbacker credited Yeager Airport Police Chief Eric Johnson, a former member of the Charleston Police motorcycle unit, and State Police officials with helping to bring the training to Yeager on short notice.

“I think that’s as fast as we’ve ever lined up a new class,” Langenbacker said. “We’re already booked through all of this year and most of next year. The plan is to come back here in two years.”

There was no shortage of State Police volunteers to take part in the training to become certified to operate the new motorcycles, according to Col. Jan Cahill, who was among those observing the training Wednesday.

“We had a lot more volunteers than we had slots for the training,” he said. “There were a lot of long faces after the selections were made.”

The new motorcycles will be used mainly to control crowds and traffic at special events, like fairs, festivals and VIP visits, Cahill said.

“They are highly maneuverable and can get you to places where cars can’t,” he said. “They’re cost-effective to operate, and they’re good public relations tools. West Virginia has some of the best motorcycling in the United States, and our operators will have a great opportunity to promote safety among riders who come here and driver education groups who live here.”

Last but not least, “motorcycles are part of the State Police tradition, and this is our centennial,” Cahill said.

Motorcycles were used by the State Police since the agency, the fourth-oldest state police organization in the nation, was created in 1919 — although in that year, they were outnumbered by horses. In 1932, motorcycles outnumbered cars in the WVSP, which had 62 motorcycles and 55 cars on the road that year.

Between 1926 and 1935, five State Police troopers lost their lives in motorcycle accidents.

Cahill said the WVSP motorcycle unit was disbanded in the late 1970s.

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

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