Warm weather brings out motorcycles. Motorcycles bring bikers. Bikers bring biker runs. And biker runs bring problems—especially for street cops.
For purposes of this article, I’m going to limit the tactics discussed to making high-risk stops, either investigatory or traffic-related, of known or suspected biker groups connected to or affiliated with outlaw motorcycle clubs or gangs (e.g., the Hell’s Angels, Mongols, Warlocks, Deadmen, the Sons of Silence or some other lesser-known—but just as dangerous—groups) with known hostilities toward law enforcement. Furthermore, nothing contained in this piece should be construed as suggesting that the mere display of biker colors justifies the stopping of any motorcycle operator or condoning the harassment of any particular biker club or group. Remember: Every investigatory stop, regardless of the operator, must be precipitated on probable cause.
How It’s Done
Stopping a group of outlaw bikers creates significant risks. Whether they’re on a dedicated run with their colors displayed or heading to or from a rally, a funeral or a party, there are significant threats. Organized runs of outlaw biker gangs are rare nowadays. Most, if not all, don’t want to draw attention to themselves, especially if they’re carrying or transporting contraband or drugs, and most won’t be flying their colors. With the exception of a funeral for a fellow member or an unscheduled musical event, the two most regular biker runs that uniformed street cops will find themselves dealing with are the treks to South Dakota for the Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally each summer and the yearly jogs to Daytona Beach for Bike Week, held each spring in central Florida.
Law enforcement officers conducting investigatory or traffic stops of one or more outlaw bikers must never let their guards down. Like oil and water, outlaw bikers and cops don’t mix well. And the odds of stopping a wanted suspect, even one wanted for a something as insignificant as an outstanding bench warrant, are pretty good.
Having spent a good deal of my time in the bag, pushing a cruiser, I can’t count the number of times my partner and I stopped Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club members for legitimate, albeit minor, traffic infractions (e.g., no helmet, expired plates, no inspection sticker) only to find outstanding criminal warrants for one or more of the members. Of course, the outstanding criminal warrant permits a custodial arrest. The custodial arrest allows a search incident to that arrest. And what comes out of their pockets is just gravy on top of the meat, be it some dope, a gun or an auto-open knife.
In my past life as an undercover narc, I networked with some biker wannabes, forerunners of what (and who) eventually became the Rochester, N.Y., chapter of the Hell’s Angels. Since that time, formal schooling and professional education has confirmed much of what I learned back then. Here are some must-know tactical tips.
Have back-up: Outlaw bikers, while having little respect for the law, per se, do respect a controlled show of force. Never try to make a traffic stop of known outlaw bikers alone. As odd as it may sound, outlaw bikers look at police officers as another type of gang—and not necessarily one with similar philosophies. In a strange way, a controlled, professional show of police force (i.e., numbers) elicits respect from them. I know there’s some strange psychology at play here that I can’t explain, but trust me on this.
Don’t let them put the kick stand of their bike down: Leaving the kick stand up will force the operator to have to balance his bike with both feet. To these folks, their bikes are gold. Most won’t want to risk dropping it just to get to you. Tell them straight up, “Leave your kick stand up, sir.” Remember: Passenger-
side approaches work here, too, even though you’re dealing with a motorcycle. Approach from the right and remember the reactionary gap.
Have them turn the ignition off and remove the keys: If you’re really into testing compliance, and every verbal command should be just that, have him drop the keys. Have him take his hands off the handle bars. The right-hand grip is the throttle. It contains a lot of wires, gears and moving parts. But the left grip is usually solid except for the clutch. A frequent hiding place for edged weapons is the left-hand grip or the gas cap. Having him remove his hands from the grips, and keeping them visible, lessens the chance for access to a weapon.
When talking with a biker, have them dismount their bike from the right: Again, you’re testing compliance and having him do something that’s unnatural. Motorcycle kick stands are located on the left and riders normally dismount off the left side of bike. Having him get off on the right side will throw him off a little. Just like in other types of high-risk vehicle stops, have the rider come back to you, to an area that you and your partners can control.
Should a Terry frisk be warranted, ensure your pat-down is completed safely, tactically and thoroughly: Safely means “with plenty of back-up.” No doubt your pat-down is going to generate some displeasure among the other members of the group. While you’re tied up doing the pat-down frisk, your back-up officers should be keeping an eye on the other members. Not jaw-boning with them or chatting it up, but positioned properly with one watching you and the others watching them.
A tactical frisk of a biker is a little different than that of a four-wheel vehicle operator. Colors have a lot of neat little inside pockets. Make sure you focus on the vest, but treat it with respect. To outlaw bikers, their colors are more precious than their girlfriends or wives. Also, leathers feel different than other types of clothing. Not many police officers have ever patted-down a person wearing body armor. Do you know what soft body armor feels like during a pat-down frisk? Contraband or concealed weapons may be easily confused with the seams and stitching on protective leather clothing.
Be thorough. Check the gloves, boots and head coverings during your pat-down. Also, view female passengers closely. It’s not uncommon for the female riders to be carrying the contraband.
Remember biker gang protocol: On organized runs, a road boss is usually in charge. Although the club president will most likely be present, the road boss will usually occupy a position in front. The club president may be somewhere in back, and rank insignias aren’t readily visible.
Years ago, my partner and I (with two other solo units) pulled over a small group of Hell’s Angels on a weekend run. New York V&T laws require that motorcycle headlights must be on at all times even during daylight hours. Three of the six choppers didn’t have working headlights. Helmets and eye wear are also required and, as such, the rider’s faces weren’t readily visible. However, from prior intel we knew that the chapter president had NYS vanity plates on his 1947 Harley Pan Head, that read “JTP-HA.” “Jimmy The Prez, Hell’s Angels.” Ol’ Jimmy was riding in the third pairing, curb slot.
Although nothing more than a couple of warnings for equipment violations (along with some fast NCIC checks) resulted from the stop, having the patrol sergeant swing by didn’t go unnoticed. Having a ranking officer or deputy on scene can be helpful in dealing with an organized biker group. Again, in a strange twist of logic, the road boss or chapter/club president will usually respond more directly to a shirt with stripes or bars on it.
Have a safe summer, and keep aware on all stops. But keep especially aware when dealing with outlaw bikers.
Remsberg, C: The Tactical Edge: Surviving High Risk Patrol. Caliber Press, Inc. Northbrook, Ill. 1986.
Rayburn, M: Advanced Vehicle Stop Tactics: Skills for Today’s Survival Conscious Officer. Looseleaf Law Publications, Inc. Flushing, N.Y. 2001.