Police Motor Units
The History of Motorcycle Law Enforcement

 "Virtual Museum"

 

 

 

 

Des Moines Police Department


The Spring of 1905, the police decided that citizen action is not enough.  They assigned mounted Officer John Penn to patrol Grand Avenue and stop reckless "Scorching."  The first offender, Dr. Wilson McCarty, sped by Officer Penn, who spurred his steed to a gallop off in pursuit.  An Ingersoll Line Streetcar blocked traffic at 19th Street and saved the honor of the police force.  Officer Penn dismounted, ran to the car, vaulted into the passenger seat and instructed Dr. Wilson McCarty, that he was under arrest and should proceed slowly to the police station.  The Traffic Squad nabbed its first speeder.

     Things got hot for speeders after the city's spring election of 1906.  War was declared by the newly-elected and formidable alderman from the First Ward, John L. Hamery.  The young son of (future police superintendent) Hamery had come close to being run down by a car, and Hamery vowed the speeding would be "a thing of the past."

     That summer, Officer Penn was back patrolling the avenue, but now as Des Moines' first and only motorcycle policeman.  Riding a Belgian-made Fabrique National four-cylinder motorcycle capable of 60 mph, he could out run any car in town.  The Capitalreported that Penn was "delighted with his new possession...previously the best he could do was to stand on the corner and make noise like a policeman."

     At 10 o'clock Friday night, June 8, 1906, Grover Hubbell was preparing his car for a fast evening spin down the avenue.  Hubbell was the treasurer of the Iowa Automobile Club and son of the richest man in the state, and was very familiar with his big machine.  But none of this mattered when he sped by motorcycle cop No. 1, John Penn.  Speeding after his man Penn reportedly vowed "alderman and special police cannot beat the regular men."  

     It took Penn one mile to overtake Grover, "You're under arrest - fast driving...you can get away from me.  this machine can go 40 mph without noticing it."  In front of the police judge, Hubbell protested that he wasn't going so fast.  But the Traffic Officer Penn stood his ground, "I have both a cyclometer and a speed meter on my motorcycle."  None was news to Hubbell, as he had loaned that fancy motorcycle to Officer Penn to patrol that avenue.  Now he was the victim of his own kindness.  Not surprisingly, next week Officer Penn was back working the desk at the police station.

    The police had been without a motorcycle since Grover Hubbell retrieved his fancy Belgian motorbike from the overzealous Officer Penn.  Police Chief Miller and Commissioner Hamery even hatched a cracked plan to run down speeding cars with a bicycle patrol.  Luckily, the next week Hamery visited Chicago and came back sold on police motorcycles.

    The next year, the police rented a 1911 Harley-Davidson motorcycle to pursue a "chug wagon Chollie," who was terrorizing Des Moines by stealing fancy touring cars for joyrides.  On May 27, 1911 he stole a car from outside the Hotel Savery and led policeman McMillen on wild chase up Grand Avenue before he escaped down 42nd Street and thoughtfully returned the car to its orginal location.  He was not apprehended.

    Officer Harry McMillen was chosen to be the city's first official motorcycle cop.  on May 25, 1911, after "many hours" learning to ride, he set out to patrol the Grand Avenue and Kingman Boulevard "speedways," where he arrested many prominent citizens.  When a judge questioned his powers under the state's new but vague "Kulp automobile law,"  local pressure mounted to enact stronger municipal ordinances.

     New Police Chief John Jenney bought two more motorcycles in 1912 to equip his now five-man motor squad.  City records list a purchase of two "seven-horsepower 'Indian' motorcycles with 'Prest-O-Lites,' speedometers and carriers, complete for the sum of $229.20 each from Jenkins & Co."  The motorcycle patrol was a big success.  That June, "motorcycle man" Ed Weaver answered 225 calls  and made 80 arrests.  The fines received paid for two more motorcycles.   

Assistant Chief C.C. Jackson was so excited he recommended dropping all walking beats in the suburbs to expand the motorcycle corps to 15 men.  He extolled the work of night patrol officers Howard and McMillen, who tested the doors of 135 businesses every evening.  Howard and McMillen became so popular that the residents along Grand raised $500 to pay their salaries and expenses in hopes of ending the intolerable "scorching" on the avenue.  The advance publicity scared the speeders off and officers did not write a single ticket, but the neighborhood declared it money well spent.  Public relations for the flying squad's image rose even higher when John A Brophy, star of the champion 1910 East High football team, joined the cycle squad.

     The motorcycle soon proved to be a fair-weather friend.  Even bundled up, Harry McMillen and Steve Howard still froze their ears and nose when they ventured out in January into the blustering winds skipping about on the unplowed icy and snow-drifted streets.

     This led to wrecked motorcycles.  The city paid out big money to fix them:  June 1912 - $24; July - $64; and August - $80. Patching up the officers was yet another worry.  Joe Newell crashed during his first riding lesson smashing his face.  Steve Howard was also cut and bruised when he collided with a grocery wagon.  Thomas English was chasing two speeders when he ran into the 6th Avenue streetcar, which propelled him 50 feet in-the air.  He landed in nearby Mercy Hospital, the motorcycle demolished.  Worst of all, the prized Brophy went airborne of a pile of sand Evel-Knievel-style, fracturing his skull.

     The expenses were certainly rising.  In 1913, the motorcycle squad had jumped to six men with a payroll of $500 a month.  Three new Harley-Davidson motorcycles cost an additional $850. But the biggest cost to the city was embarrassment caused by the revelation the stalwart officers Howard and McMillien regularly employed their speedy machines to make unofficial calls to Mrs. Hast's "house of ill repute" at 602 East Walnut.

     In 1914, Police Chief Jenney was replaced by Ed Crawford, who was not in love with motorcycles.  The Denver police had already discarded motorcycles in favor of light automobiles.  They had reasoned that a motorcycle cop had to call for a car to take the prisoner to jail, so why not send a car in the first place?   Crawford announced that he would replace the bikes with autos as they wore out or were wrecked (at the rate they were being smashed it wouldn't be long).  This worried the motorcycle men, who were to small and lightweight to be reassigned as regular policemen.  By 1913, Des Moines had a total of a dozen motorcycles used by the police and smoke, health and fire inspectors.  After three years of motorcycles marked by six major accidents that left two officers disfigured and one crippled, Chief Crawford began looking at automobiles.

     In September 1914, the police inspectors traded in their little red Ford for a Chevrolet roadster.  The next March, the police were authorized to sell three motorcycles along with five horses, two colts and the old White auto toward purchasing a new car.  But even with the motorcycle corps payroll down to $250, there still wasn't enough money for the new car.

    In 1916, the police sold one "Abbot-Detroit" auto and applied the $260 toward the purchase of two new Chevrolets at $790 each.  The inspectors traded in two old Chevrolets and bought two new Maxwells.  Even the motorcycle squad was kept alive by trading in two old Harley-Davidsons for two new and expensive ($570 each!) "Thor" model motorcycles.  

    By 1960, the department had 13 radio-equipped, three-wheel motorcycles, and 43 radio-equipped automobiles.

     Motorcycles were also a vital means of patrolling the streets of Des Moines, especially in the early 1900s.  The motorcycle of choice for police departments across the nation was the Harley-Davidson and Des Moines was no exception, although this department had also used Moto-Guzzi motorcycles, Hondas and Kawasakis in its two-wheeler fleet.  The Harley-Davidson three-wheeled motorcycle was also used for a time, primarily for downtown loop traffic.  There are currently seven Harley-Davidson police motorcycles in the department's collection that are used by the officers assigned to the tactical Unit.

1911 Harley-Davidson Model 7-A

1960

Old Traffic Sgt. Patch

 


To purchase a copy of "Behind the Badge" and read about more great stories and history visit

The Des Moines Police Museum or just click on the book cover.

Photos and Information provided by Sgt. (Retired) Mike Leeper of the Des Moines Police Museum with full support by the Des Moines Police Department.  The history was exerts from the book "Behind the Badge" The history of the Des Moines Police Department provided by the Des Moines Police Department Museum.  A special Thank you to the Museum, Sgt. Mike Leeper, and the other authors of the book.