In the fast lane of Los Angeles’ hyper-busy 605 freeway, my car’s pushing 85mph and struggling to keep up with a gang of 30 or so motorbikes that are blasting over the sun-scorched surface in a sharp two-line formation. The speed limit here is 65, but as they cut a swathe through the early-morning rush-hour, scant regard is being shown for the law. That’s because they are the law – members of the elite California Highway Patrol – and they’ve got far more important things to do than nick themselves.
Ten miles up the freeway, in a private car park, a 30-cone weave has been set up. It’s part of a refresher course they have to do every three months, to sharpen their riding skills. I’ve already seen how fast they can go. Now it’s time to test close control and handling at slow speeds – but nothing too tight: " We don’t want them to drop their bikes, " explains the instructor, Sgt Worthington, " they’re too pricey to repair. "
With all the kit on, the bikes are worth around $17,000 apiece. But no sooner has the boss man spoken than one officer takes a dramatic tumble halfway into his fourth turn, seriously scraping his black and white fairing and his mirror. The sergeant winces.
The atmosphere becomes a little tense, so one officer breaks ranks and pulls an impressive wheelie along the parking lot, much to the amusement of his fellow policemen. The sergeant, however, isn’t impressed and lets him know it. After the officer takes his bollocking, he turns to me and whispers: " You know what? I think it adds a little levity. "
Levity isn’t exactly a personality trait you’d expect from your average police officer. But we’re talking Los Angeles here. It’s the land of celebrity, oddity and therapy, plus the odd pair of Tupperware tits – so nothing is ever quite as real as you expect it to be. The cops over here are much cooler for a start. Take, for instance, the no-nonsense, authoritative finger wagging you experience when stopped on the M1 by one of our uniformed motorway minders. Now, add a pair of mirrored shades, a 40-calibre Smith & Wesson semi-automatic weapon and a funny accent and I’m sure you start to get the picture.
It’s a far cry from the buddy-buddy adventures of officers Ponch and Jon in the ’70s TV show CHiPs. If that version of the job were to be believed, being in the California Highway Patrol consists mainly of playing on the beach with your best mate and stopping on the way home to instruct the odd sexy speeder to " pull over " . When CHiPs was first shown, recruitment to the force jumped 200 per cent.
" Yeah, it did raise awareness, but they didn’t show much of what really happens out there, " says Sgt Russ Fifer, who is sarge-in-charge today. " For instance, the dangers you face, not to mention the paperwork! "
Ah, yes, the dangers. Over here, there are many – car drivers for one. If you worry about the lack of thought shown to riders in the UK, then perhaps the LA freeway isn’t the place for you. Road courtesy for other drivers – let alone bike riders – is not high on the priority list. A few years ago, a statistic was bandied around which claimed that the average life expectancy for someone riding a motorcycle in LA was nine months. " There’s no courtesy or respect in LA on the roads, " concedes one officer.
Apart from your basic rudeness and lack of consideration, there’s other non-Tarmac distractions such as mobile phones and make-up. And, being in America, you can never rule out the threat of a gun. Freeway shootings are not unknown and road rage can sometimes have fatal consequences.
Pulling a motorist over is a dangerous dance routine in itself – as anyone who’s seen those police action videos will know.
In 1995, police held a remembrance day for four California Highway Patrol Officers who were shot after a vehicle was followed and pulled over. The driver was asked to get out and spread his hands on the bonnet. As one of the officers approached the car, the passenger pulled a gun and opened fire. Both officers were killed. So were the two that answered a call for back-up.
I ask the assembled police bikers – who patrol the city of Baldwin Hills, 25 miles east of its more glamourous neighbour, Hollywood – if they have any tips for staying alive?
" Yeah, I’ve got one, " says Officer Chris Denkers. " Just remember that there are only two types of motorcycle: One that’s gone down and one that’s going down. That’s what keeps me on my toes. "
In the classroom the unit’s Captain McKenna is holding a debriefing. The walls are decorated with posters offering inspirational messages, such as " Check your lead… before you proceed " (whatever that means!). As papers are handed out, rookie motor officer Eddie Goss, 32, is asked to read out loud. It’s the latest accident report:
" An officer with 13 years of enforcement experience was riding his motorcycle on the freeway when he observed a deer located on the hill to his east. The deer suddenly ran directly into the motorcycle’s path and the officer attempted emergency braking, but was unable to prevent the motorcycle from striking the animal. The impact caused the officer to be ejected on to the pavement causing minor injuries to his neck and back. The motorcycle sustained major damages. The deer expired at the scene. "
A few officers laugh. Goss continues: " An officer with two years of enforcement experience was riding his motorcycle at 10mph after having his rear tyre replaced at the repair shop. As the officer negotiated a right turn he accelerated and the rear tyre broke traction with the roadway. The officer lost control and was ejected on to the sidewalk, sustaining a fracture to his right femur and right kneecap. The motorcycle sustained minor damage to the right side mirror, right front engine guard and the right side saddle bag guard. "
And so it goes on. One officer’s mounting bolts for the brake calipers were missing after a service and he was unable to stop; another was side-swiped by a lane-changing motorist; and another was rear-ended by a driver who was too busy using a mobile phone.
All this must make them feel pretty vulnerable.
" I don’t know about feeling vulnerable, I know for a fact that we are, " says Denkers. " I’m confident in my riding skills and you’ve just got to be aware. Often you don’t have to be at fault to end up dead on this bike. "
Sometimes it can be the San Andrea Fault that messes up your day. In 1994, Los Angeles suffered an earthquake and one unfortunate motorcycle cop found he’d literally run out of road after the freeway bridge he was riding on split in two. He was unable to stop and was killed instantly.
If all this isn’t enough to put would-be motorcycle cops off, rookies are expected to buy their first bike before they start training. They have to buy what’s called a run-out bike – something that can set them back around $1500! These are the old Kawasaki Z1000s – as used by Jon and Ponch – that are now being phased out in favour of the BMW R1100 RT-P.
" I prefer the BMWs we use now by far, " says Denkers. " When I see that classic Kawasaki, I have no love for it at all. This is a far superior machine. "
" It’s a much more stable motorcycle, " agrees 55-year-old Officer Steve Hopkins, " and it accelerates a lot better and it’s more comfortable. At 80mph going through turns, those Kawasakis… Well, let’s just say the BMW has no problems at any speeds. "
Fifer, however, is more of a traditionalist. That or a bigger CHiPs fan than he’s admitting. " I’m the sergeant and I get the last Kawasaki, " he says proudly. " I’ve got 49,000 miles on this now – when I get to 60,000, I have to turn it in. I like it better because of the footboard, the seat’s more comfortable and you don’t have to bend over so much. Plus, I don’t want to go through the change. Who likes change? "
Unfortunately for Fifer, it would seem the rest of the department does, as it will soon be an all-BMW squad. This appears to be a minor detail in the scheme of things, though, as nothing seems to deter from the thrill of the job.
Hopkins said: " It’s kind of like riding a horse, you know. You feel the sense of freedom a lot more than in a car. I’ve spent 10 years driving a car, but I have been riding bikes all my life, the last 19 years on this. I have to say I definitely prefer bikes. "
" I’ve always liked riding, " says Goss. " I used to have a Suzuki GX1000E, and I’ve been riding street bikes since I was 16. I figured if I could ride and get paid for it this would be the ultimate, and it is. For me, things couldn’t get any better right now. "
But that doesn’t mean they take a soft line with fellow bikers.
" I don’t feel any type of camaraderie with other bikers at all, " says Officer Kevin Kirkman bluntly. " If they’re out there breaking the law they’re going to get a ticket, regardless of how cool their bike is. "
Even women drivers hitching their skirts will find such tactics just don’t wash. The highway patrol officers – or CHP Motor Officers as they are officially known – has seen pretty much everything out there on the freeway.
" I’ve seen people having sex in rush-hour traffic… while driving! " Fifer laughs. " She was sitting right on him. Once I gave them a warning and they wouldn’t stop, they just kept going. I cited them in the end for lewd exposure… or ‘unsafe speed for conditions’ Ha! "
" I was going down the road once and saw a woman completely naked in a car, " adds Kirkman, 42, warming to the subject. " I caught her in the middle of changing. Her boyfriend was driving and she was nude – I had to take a double look to be sure I was seeing what I was seeing. She was pretty embarrassed and tried to cover up – and she was kind of well-endowed. "
Fifer counters with another road story: " I’ve stopped cars where you think you’re stopping a guy on his own, and you stop and a woman’s head pops up. You know? "
Any tips at all for dealing with being stopped?
" Yeah – don’t bullshit us, " says Goss.
Either that or become a celebrity. That can help – at least sometimes. One officer recounts a story of how rapper Snoop Doggy Dog was let off with a caution – but only after he’d signed an autograph. However, American football legend Joe Montana, who played quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, wasn’t so lucky. Having pulled over his hero, the officer in question then proceeded to sign his autograph – on the bottom of a ticket.
Once a CHP officer has been issued his bike, it’s his bike. Its maintenance and care are down to him, and he gets to take it home at the end of the day. " I don’t like anyone else riding it, " says Kirkman, " and I make sure I park it where no-one else can open a door and ding it. Plus I have a certain mechanic that’s the only one I’ll let work on it… you get kind of attached to it. "
Denkers is equally proud: " It’s your office and it’s an image thing. If people see you have a sharp bike and a sharp uniform, they’re going to take you a little more seriously. If you’re not at one with it then you shouldn’t be riding. If you get a scratch on it you feel it – I hate to see anything happening to it. You create a bond – I spend more time on this thing than I do at home. "
With the training over, the station is treating the boys to a day out in San Pedro, one of California’s busy working harbours. It’s a 25-mile ride and Sgt Fifer knows that I’m unlikely to keep up in my civilian vehicle. So he takes his beloved Z1000 back to base and returns in a patrol car, and we head out again in formation into the freeway traffic: One patrol car escorted by 30 bike cops. It’s enough to make you feel almost... well, presidential.
Individually, the officers hang back to pull alongside the car and pose for our photographer while we’re speeding along the freeway. One takes his hands off the bars at over 80mph and gurns for the camera. Another decides that a tongue pointing in our general direction would be appropriate.
I wonder if you can get a ticket for that?