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In HOG heaven

Visalia police officer Jon Pree graduated from the school of hard knocks, except his was on two wheels, traveled on high-speed slalom runs.

Pree recently became the department's 10th motorcycle traffic officer. Just being able to ride a motorcycle isn't enough: Police officers must pass a test in which they are required to perform 360-degree turns at low speeds and complete sharp turns after slowing from a high-speed entry, among other exercises.

New officers are given a two-week training course as preparation. Pree passed his test this month.

The only way to learn the skills is by doing them, motorcycle trainers say. While learning tricky maneuvers on a Harley-Davidson seems like a dream come true for motorcycle enthusiasts, it's hardly a joyride.

"I am Tylenol and Motrin's best friend right now," said Pree, as he took a short break from training at an area reserved for motorcycle lessons just west of the Visalia Airport.

The maneuvers that Pree learned are not for fun or to look good, said officer Brent Miller, who taught Pree. Miller, who has been riding a motorcycle on and off for the department since 2001, said the maneuvers mimic moves officers make on their motorcycles while on the job.

Smooth use of the motorcycle's controls is key to passing the test to become a motorcycle officer, Miller said.

During the exercise for turning in a full circle, the motorcycle has to travel at less than 5 mph with handlebars turned all the way, a difficult task while avoiding the cones that mark the course.

For Pree's training, the guard bars around the engine and other parts of his motorcycle were covered with old firehose and duct tape to keep the motorcycle from being badly damaged.

"You're trying to learn how to use the clutch, throttle and the brake at the same time while riding a motorcycle that weighs 700, 800 pounds," Miller said.

Fortunately for Pree and the other officers, the motorcycles used by the department won't usually turn all the way over, even if parts of it skid on the ground during the training exercises. The guard bars on the sides of the motorcycles can lead to unexpected stops and impacts when they rub on the pavement. But that doesn't keep people from thinking motorcycle officers have a dream job.

"All day long, all you hear is, 'They're paying you to ride a Harley?' " Miller said.

But their main job isn't riding a Harley, said Sgt. Bill Blankenship, who supervises the department's traffic unit.

The motorcycle-based officers spend their days enforcing traffic laws, conducting enforcement details and responding to traffic accidents, as well as other service calls.

Pree's position is one of several new programs and initiatives funded by a $439,000 grant awarded to the city by the state Office of Traffic Safety.

The grant will pay for 100% of the officer's salary the first year, and 50% for the second, after which the city will pick up the whole cost of the position, Blankenship said. The grant also will pay for the purchase of an additional police motorcycle.

Pree's training also marks some firsts for the department, Blankenship said. He is the first Visalia officer to go through formal training on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that was conducted by the department, with a department instructor.

Blankenship said previous training was done more informally. Miller attended a motorcycle instructor training course offered through Northwestern University to learn how to train other riders for the department.

Now that Pree has passed the test, he faces several weeks of on-the-job training so he can become more familiar with the city and its traffic patterns.

Police officers on Harleys are expected to learn to ride in a certain posture, with a certain amount of decorum, Miller said. At the end of a typical 10-hour shift on the motorcycle, an officer is usually tired and maybe a little sore and chafed from riding.

Although it's not like taking your own Hog out for a joyride on the weekend, riding a police motorcycle is the best job on the force, Miller said. He enjoys working outside most of the day and being able to interact with the public.

When a police motorcycle officer drives down the road, lots of people pay attention, he said.

"This is a very public position," he said. "When you pull someone over, or when you pull off the road to take a break, someone wants to talk to you about the bike."