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A TRADITION RETURNS // Cycle cops come full circle

On the wall at police headquarters are framed reminders of an almost forgotten era, snapshots dated by more than the architecture in the background.

An entire squad of bow-tied police officers, 10 of them, pose atop kick-start motorcycles. The sun gleams from the shine of their knee-highs.

In yet another photo, an officer smiles behind a three-wheeler used to patrol the busy streets of downtown long before the golf carts of today and the fiscal concerns of yesteryear.

"It's been a nostalgic thing," says Donald Leadbeater, a motorcycle officer just before the unit was disbanded in 1970-71. "I was one of the last horsemen."

But officers in St. Petersburg soon will ride again. After 25 years, the tradition resumes.

Sort of.

Instead of chasing speeders and escorting funerals, this new breed of biker cops will target street-corner drug peddlers. They will stop to chat with residents and will lead anti-drug marches in troubled neighborhoods.

"Motorcycles are going to be a very highly visible part of the unit," says Rollin Lightfield, one of three sergeants selected to direct the new cycle officers.

"We may just show up and park somewhere _ all of us. We're going to be very open to try anything new."

Billed as the latest element of community-oriented policing here, the concept already has enticed the federal government. St. Petersburg recently received a $1.35-million grant to help pay for 18 new police officers for three years.

The city has budgeted $918,000 to cover the rest of the salaries and to buy equipment as well as 21 cycles for the officers and three sergeants.

For about $150 a month, police administrators say they are leasing new Harley-Davidson FLHTP Electra Glides.

"The ultimate police motorcycle . . .," says the maker's brochure. "It creates a presence unequaled by any other machine."

Until their absence, police motorcycles were oft-seen fixtures in St. Petersburg.

Before the city bought an Essex as its first cruiser in 1922, officers rode cycles. But, according to department accounts, the officers had to buy the cycles themselves.

The fourth officer ever to be slain in the line of duty was cycle cop W. Eugene Minor. He was shot to death in 1929 after stopping a truck with a burned-out taillight. The driver had been hauling live, stolen chickens.

Eventually, the department had dozens of cycles. In 1929, all but one member of the city's first team of lifeguards also served as cycle officers.

Now, police Chief Darrel Stephens says the Harley-Davidsons will be economical transportation for the new cycle squad. A new police cruiser costs $21,214, department figures show.

"We can do more with less money," Stephens says. "We got 21 cycles, compared to five or six cruisers for the money."

With the savings, however, comes new risk. When the motorcycle unit was disbanded two decades ago, police administrators cited the need to protect officers when arguing that more cruisers and a helicopter would be better tools to enforce traffic laws.

One officer, Gene A. Bessette, was killed when his cycle was broadsided in 1961. Several others had been injured through the years including Nicholas San Marco, who was escorting a funeral and whose son now is an assistant chief.

"You just didn't dwell on the danger," says retired Officer Kenny Beilein, who spent 13 years on a police cycle.

Of the accidents back then, Leadbeater's crash in October 1970 gained the most attention. He was part of a presidential motorcade carrying Richard Nixon out of town to the airport.

A flatbed truck turned in front of the procession and Leadbeater had no chance to stop. His Harley-Davidson 74cc was crushed. So were Leadbeater's ribs.

A lung was punctured. His right arm, leg and ankle were broken. He was lying in the street when Nixon ordered the motorcade to stop. The president rushed next to Leadbeater as other officers crowded around him.

"I'm sorry I fouled up your motorcade, Mr. President," Leadbeater told him.

By most accounts, the motorcycle unit was scrapped within months of the accident. Leadbeater retired the next year, no longer physically fit to work the streets.

But he remembers the good old days. His spirited stories depict weeks of writing 50 traffic tickets and investigating dozens of accidents. His cycle was not equipped with a radar device, but a button did lock the speedometer so he could show speeders how fast they had been driving.

"We were almost invisible," he says. "Back then, we didn't have to roam with headlights on. Back then, you could hide just about anywhere you wanted to _ in plain view."

Citing speeders is not the community service envisioned by police now, says Sgt. Tom Carey of the new cycle unit.

With the emphasis against street-level drug dealing, the unit is part of the city's Project RESPECT, which already has advocated weekly marches in neighborhoods where crack cocaine is considered rampant.

"When we get out there with these residents, they are starting to realize how much power they have," Carey says.

So do the dealers, says Sgt. Greg Schwemley. Motorcycle officers will be divided among each of the city's three policing districts.

"The ultimate vision," Schwemley says, "is to have every neighborhood tight enough so these drug groups can't go anywhere without having somebody telling them they don't want them there and they're not going to take their fear tactics."

Whether the cycle officers eventually may be used in other ways remains to be seen, says Stephens, the police chief. He also cannot say what will happen when the federal grant expires in three years.

The grant, however, isn't the city's first for cycles. In the early 1970s, a dozen red scooters were bought as part of an experiment by the special tactical squad to use in high crime areas. The scooters had less than 100 miles on each odometer when deemed dangerous and not feasible, and they wound up stored for more than 18 months before the federal government found them a new home.

Some seats on the new Harleys had to be lowered, but officers seem to be adjusting fine so far. On Sept. 11, the new unit begins a four-week training session before officially hitting the streets Oct. 9.

Among those chosen for the squad were a woman who had been a community officer and two black men _ believed to be the first woman and African-Americans ever to serve as biker cops here.

Technically, the 18 jobs created by the federal grant will be filled by rookie officers. To qualify for the new unit, officers had to be off probation for two years. They needed a motorcycle endorsement on their driver's license, and their personnel file had to be clear of recent disciplinary action.

They also had to prove they had a garage or storage area for the cycles because they get to take them home when they're off duty.

In the former days of motorcycles, the department had few requirements to join the unit. Officers simply had to write a memo requesting a transfer, then they rode next to veteran colleagues for about a month.

But the cycles back then had odd mechanisms. They were designed for police, and the left foot controlled the clutch and the gearshift was on the right side of the tank. The right foot operated the rear brake, and the right hand controlled the front brake.

Officers, coasting into intersections, could shift into neutral and still hold up one hand to halt traffic or operate the radio.

The Harleys now come equipped like most cycles. The ignition is automatic; one hand controls the brake, the other controls the clutch. Radio microphones are built into their helmets.

"We can't guarantee that we won't have accidents, but we have accidents in cruisers now," Stephens says.

"It's an issue of your training and your policies and your selection process. You can minimize the potential for accidents."

He also says officers should be safe in drug areas. Rocks and bottles are rarely hurled at police these days, unlike the 1960s when the garbage workers' strike led to greater tension and attacks on officers.

Under no circumstances, he says, will cycle officers be used to chase fleeing motorists. Cruisers will do that.

But cycle officers may pursue suspects who flee on foot if it is safe, Stephens says.

Despite his accident so many years ago, Leadbeater says cycles indeed belong in the fleet of police vehicles.

"The motorcycle didn't hurt me. The damn truck did," he says. "The driver didn't yield to red lights and sirens."

THE BIKE

St. Petersburg police offices have cruisers, golf carts, vans, bicycles and even a boat to use for patrols. Now a new squad of officers will ride Harley-Davidson FLHTP Electra Glide motorcycles, joining Clearwater and Largo police to have cycle units in Pinellas County. Some facts about the birch-white Harleys:

Air-cooled, four-stroke V2 evolution engine, 1340cc.

The bore and stroke is 3.498x4.250".

The torque is 82.5 foot-pounds 4000RPM, and the clutch is a wet Multiplate. The clutch must be disengaged for the starter/motor to operate.

The transmission has five forward speeds.

The overall height is 61 inches, and the overall length is 94.2 inches.

The fuel tank holds 5 gallons, and the cycle gets 50 miles per gallon on the highway and 39 miles per gallon in city driving. It also has an automatic fuel shut off valve.

An engine-isolating tri-month chassis intercepts engine vibration and reduces rider fatigue.

The massive 11.5-inch dual front disc brake rotors provide excellent stopping power. The front and rear tires are MM90 x 16T Tubeless Blackwall Dunlops.

Source: Harley-Davidson, police motorcycle brochure

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