One afternoon last October, sheriff's deputies in the East San Gabriel Valley got a phone call that a man with a gun had been spotted near a Diamond Bar bank.
When deputies tried to speed to the scene, they found their patrol cars' flashing red lights and sirens useless in Diamond Bar's bumper-to-bumper afternoon traffic.
But one deputy arrived in 30 seconds.
He was riding a motorcycle, training to become a member of the first Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department motorcycle squad to hit the street since the 1920s.
Sheriff's Department officials say the incident illustrates the need for new solutions in patrolling the traffic-clogged streets of the San Gabriel Valley. They have already taken the first step: a two-year, pilot program in which six deputies recently traded in their bulky black-and-white patrol cars to cruise on 600-pound motorcycles in Diamond Bar, San Dimas and Walnut.
If successful, the project, which started Nov. 4, could become permanent in the three San Gabriel Valley cities and expand countywide, said Lt. Robert Sedita, who heads the new unit.
"A motorcycle is more versatile than a car," Sedita said. He believes the new squad will shorten response time, add flexibility and lower the rate of accidents by enforcing speed limits.
The cities contract with the Sheriff's Department for law enforcement. But services, such as traffic control, are becoming increasingly difficult with only cars as patrol vehicles, Sedita said.
The idea for the new squad was born last year, when the three cities came to Capt. Lee McCowan, the Walnut station's commander, and asked if the Sheriff's Department could provide deputies that ride motorcycles. They agreed to foot the more than $1-million bill.
Six full-time deputies riding Kawasaki Police 1000 motorcycles on the streets mainly during weekday rush hours represents a return to an idea abandoned more than 60 years ago when the department took its motorcycles off the streets.
Although no one seems to know why the old squad disbanded, Sedita said he believes the county gave its motorcycles to the California Highway Patrol.
Under the new system, three deputies patrol Diamond Bar, two work in San Dimas and one is assigned to Walnut. All are equipped with radar guns. They sit at troublesome intersections or target high-accident areas to get motorists to follow traffic laws, replacing black and white traffic cars that formerly did the same job, Sedita said.
But like their patrol-car counterparts, the motorcycle deputies also respond to high-priority calls, such as crimes in progress, assaults and robberies, Sedita said.
Formerly, the department was forced to rely for motorcycle duty on 22 volunteer reserve deputies, who buy their own $6,000 bikes, still work only part time because they hold other jobs and are on call to stations throughout Los Angeles County, said deputy Harry Porter, one of the volunteer squad coordinators.
Because the sheriff's squad is experimental, the eight deputies in the unit--a sergeant, six riders and an alternate--are being monitored by sheriff's brass.
Cmdr. Thomas M. Vetter, an area commander in field operations, said Sheriff Sherman Block will review the program in cooperation with the cities.
"It could go countywide in other contract cities," Vetter said. "It's really up to individual cities, if they would want it or not. . . . So far, the cities (involved) are very pleased with it."
Both Diamond Bar Mayor Jay Kim and San Dimas Mayor Terry Dipple said motorcycles seem the perfect answer to law enforcement problems. Both said residents sought relief from outsiders speeding through their city streets on shortcuts.
"So far, I think it's working out," Dipple said. "It's less expensive than having a traffic car sitting at an intersection."
Sedita said the program will be evaluated on several fronts: cost, reduction in response time, how often motorcycles respond to crimes in progress and medical emergencies, effectiveness in reducing traffic accidents, and improvement of community relations.
"The eight guys are going to make or break the program for the whole county," said Mitch Brown, 34, one of the squad members.
Those picked for the job passed two weeks of intensive training at the Long Beach Police Department Motorcycle Academy and six weeks of ride-along instruction with California Highway Patrol motorcycle training officers.
They wear custom, lightweight helmets, $300 knee boots, specially made motorcycle pants and a patch designed especially for them: a wheel with wings.
Their ranks range from deputy Gary Hinkle, 33, a motorcycle novice who said he had "zero" experience before making the squad, and deputy Mitch Brown, 34, a veteran of 21 years on dirt bikes and touring bikes.
For Brown, a six-year veteran who has toured Canada, Wyoming and Arizona on a motorcycle and commutes to work on a Honda Gold Wing motorcycle, the squad is the fulfillment of the second of his two long-held goals: working for the Sheriff's Department and being a motorcycle officer.
Instead, of hotshot, high-speed motorcycle tricks, Brown takes pride in his precise control of the vehicle at low speeds, a skill necessary for police work.
His enthusiasm was evident on a recent weekday as he made a slow, tight circle in front of the Walnut station, grinning as he leaned over so far that the motorcyle footrest scraped the pavement.
"It's good practice," Brown said. "You need to know how far you can lean it without dropping it."
With the squad on the street for only two months, it is too early to tell whether accidents are down. But Brown believes the presence of the motorcycle officers deters motorists from speeding and breaking other traffic laws.
"The word gets around that the motorcycles are out," he said. "People appear to be slowing way down."