Volume 13, Issue 39 ~ September 29 - October 5, 2005
photo by B.C. Phillips
As one of 32 officers in Washington’s Motorcycle Patrol Division of the Metropolitan Police, Howard Dunlap is “responsible for the safe departure and arrival of our assigned dignitary” — which regularly includes President Bush but has also included Bruce Willis, Cindy Lauper, Shaquille O’Neal and Tony Blair.
On the Job Howard Dunlap Jr.
Just one of D.C.’s finest
by B.C. Phillips

Howard Dunlap Jr., of Owings, is not just any cop. You might have seen him on the front page of The Washington Post last January, or on one of the TV news networks as he cruised among a tight formation of motorcycles escorting President George W. Bush to his second inauguration. That historic occasion was one of Dunlap’s most memorable trips. But in many respects, it was just another day’s work for the 32 motorcycle operators who make up Washington’s Motorcycle Patrol Division of the Metropolitan Police.

As a part of countless police motorcades, Dunlap has met and guided presidents, prime ministers, star athletes and film celebrities through the streets of D.C. and around the Capital region. His duty?

“We are responsible for the safe departure and arrival of our assigned dignitary,” he says in a calm, even-toned voice, looking me square in the eye.

Dunlap’s giant, off-white Harley-Davidson Police Electraglide sits in his garage. He brought it home to Owings from Washington, D.C., today. He figures he’ll ride it around town and save on gas, with prices as high as they are.

Next to the Police Electraglide is a smaller Harley, a blue 2003 Road King Anniversary Edition. This is Dunlap’s personal bike, the one ridden by the regular guy in T-shirt and jeans on day-trips to Ocean City, Annapolis and Solomons. Dunlap has been riding motorcycles since he was 15. He never imagined he’d end up in the presidential motorcade.

“I got out of the United States Navy in 1990. I did odd jobs: I worked for UPS, I tended bar,” he said. “I just sat down one day and thought about what skills I had and what I wanted out of life, and I realized that a police department or a fire department best suited me. I applied to both, and the police department accepted me first.”

During Dunlap’s early years as a D.C. cop, he patrolled the streets of northeast D.C. on a smaller 250cc scooter. The larger bikes, the Harley Electraglides, are for only a select few, 32 out of 3,500 officers. Absolute precision control of the motorcycle is required of escorts of the president.

“The whole time I was on the scooter, I would practice things like going as slow as I possibly could without putting my feet down,” Dunlap said. “Clutch control, brake control, acceleration, I practiced all of that. I just thought maybe one day I could get on the big motorcycle.”

His informal exercises paid off. After six and a half years working the beats, a 2001 vacancy announcement gave Dunlap his chance. He advanced through the skills tests and an oral interview, one of six out of the 90-plus who applied. Now he’s among the nation’s most visible cops.

Eyes On
During a typical procession, the tone is serious, the riders hyper-alert. The leader, usually a junior officer, must be able to picture the exact route in his head, keen to all last-minute changes due to construction and traffic. As they cruise through the streets, officers use hand-signals to move traffic on either side as far out of the route as possible, opening up a wide central corridor. There must be room to maneuver, room to escape.

“All the bikes are responsible for the same things: making sure the traffic stays put and watching out for potential threats. If you see a threat, of course you’ve got to radio.”

And a threat could be?

“Anything. A broken down car, anything.”

“It’s a very, very stressful job. I mean, yeah, it becomes second nature after a while, but … you’re constantly aware of your surroundings, so all your muscles are tense. And you’re always riding straight because you’re in the public eye.”

Through the heat, rain and snow, these high-profile cops cruise on.

Occasionally, a rider does his job a little too well.

“Like I said, we see our routes in our heads, and sometimes you’re just concentrating on everything else and you just forget that street. You forget to take the turn. And now everybody else is turning and you’re just stuck over here waving good-bye.” Dunlap’s laugh is infectious.

“The first time that happened to me, I was third bike, but I lost sight of the guys in front of me. There was a turn they made that I didn’t see them make. I kept on going straight. And when I saw them …”

His wife, listening in, chuckles.

“Yeah, that’s funny!” he says with a broad smile. “I’m going down Rockcreek Parkway, and there’s a bridge that goes above us. I saw ’em go right above me! And then I lost sight of ’em. At that point I was so embarrassed and frustrated I just kept going. Of course they were all looking for me when I got there.” He deepens and draws out his voice, to comical effect. “‘Hey, where’s Dunlap?’ Oh, that was so embarrassing.”

But the job has its perks.

“God, I’ve met so many people,” he grins. Bruce Willis. Billy Joel. Cindy Lauper — “she was the greatest.” Kevin Spacey. Shaquille O’Neal. M.C. Hammer — “a helluva guy, very humble.”

Steven Spielberg gave him a cigar. Ben Stiller jokingly tried to steal his motorcycle. Tony Blair made an impression: “Some people walk into a room, and you can just feel that they’re powerful.”

And of course, President Bush, for Dunlap “the biggest thrill.”

What’s he like?
“He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s one of the very few that truly acknowledges us. Every single time I’ve brought him to the White House, or wherever we’re going, he will lean up in his car and he’ll look at you and wave thank you.”

And the inaugural procession, the “Motor V”? You must have to ride pretty slow to stay in formation.

“Oh my God. So slow. At the end of two and a half miles your left hand, your clutch hand, is just exhausted.”


“They’re all incredible riders,” Dunlap’s wife Kelly breaks in. “Especially when you see them ride for pleasure, when you see them all go out riding together. They’re some of the best riders I’ve ever seen.”

How can you tell?
“It’s the silly things that you do in day-to-day traffic that they’re so into,” she answered. “They stay at a certain distance, so they’re not slamming on the brakes. You’ll see the first rider doing this” … she motions as if to point to something on the road … “then, all of a sudden everyone’s looking this way because there’s a dead rabbit in the road, or a hunk of wood or a pebble or a spot of grease, something that could put the next bike down.

“The guy in front that saw it, he’s pointing to everyone else to let them know it’s there. It’s like some hidden communication that they have between them.” She laughs, shaking her head.

Dunlap and his fellow motorcycle operators are among the safest riders you will find, in or out of uniform. And they remain enthusiasts, thrilled when their job gives them the chance to ride an Orange County Chopper Comanche.

The classic Harley-Davidson engine is by most standards inefficient, even obsolete. Its pistons do not fire at even intervals. It therefore has, as Dunlap describes it, “an off-center thump.”

“It gives Harley its character. It’s not refined, it feels like it’s alive, it feels like you’re riding a horse, almost.”

Our capital’s police force will have no other brand.

After he’s showed me his Police Electraglide, Dunlap guns the engine and takes a sudden hard left back into the garage. He isn’t showing off: It’s simply the most efficient movement he could make to park the bike. This is one animal he has thoroughly tamed, on the job and off.

He remains circumspect. “Every time you take it for granted you have to remember, God, I’ve been a part of history.”

B.C. Phillips recently returned to his birthplace in Calvert County from Pennsylvania after completing his B.A. at Swarthmore College and working as an emergency medical technician. This is his second feature for Bay Weekly, following “The Blues Is My Business, and Business Is Good” on August 17 (Vol. xiii, No. 33).

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