'Motorcop' Rides Into the Hearts of State College Residents
People wave or stop to talk to Officer Joseph Zaffuto at least 15 times a day when he's out on duty. He says it's the motorcycle.
Zaffuto, who's in the Traffic and Warrant Unit of the State College Police Department, rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that's marked with police logos and equipped with a siren. It's used exclusively for traffic enforcement. Zaffuto says it has to be the most effective public relations tool the police department has because it makes him so accessible and helps him do his job more effectively.
"It's a benefit to us during special events when traffic is at its peak here in State College and the movement of traffic is slow. We may get an emergency or something, a crash, when we'll need a quick response. It's easier to maneuver a motorcycle than it is a police car," Zaffuto says.
In fact the 25-year veteran says he prefers the bike over the police car because it's made him more approachable.
"It makes contact with the public a lot easier. It's a tool that ties us closer to the community. Without question, I make contact with the public a lot easier than if I was sitting in a police car with the windows rolled up." On Memorial Day, Zaffuto was approached by a long line of parents and children who wanted to see the bike up close.
"I have 10,000 miles on it, and there is not one day where I have not had citizens come up and talk to me. Whether I see them at a traffic light where they pull up beside me and ask me a few quick questions, give me a thumbs up saying that they like the motorcycle. I have citizens wave to me that I don't get when I'm driving the police car.
"It's a closer interaction to the public," Zaffuto says, and he loves it. There's even been times where someone getting a ticket has asked if they can see the motorcycle – and then they've thanked Zaffuto.
Zaffuto has always enjoyed interacting with members of the community. Earlier in his career, Zaffuto worked in Ocean City, MD as a police officer and for the federal bureau of prisons, but didn't feel he was really living his dreams until coming to State College.
"I wanted to be a police officer for as long as I can remember. I was always looking up to the police." His previous job, working for the federal government, wasn't filling the need he felt to serve others. When he came to State College, he believed within a few months it was the right place to be.
"I knew I found my niche," he says. "I've done a lot of things in 25 years, captured career criminals, been in high-speed chases and gun standoffs. But what I like doing the most involves the community, like getting a missing child back to a family or helping someone who's been robbed.
Once, he says, before DNA testing, he was able to help find a rapist who attacked a young woman who was a freshman at Penn State and had only been in town for two days. Being able to get justice for her was very satisfying, Zaffuto says.
The police department first got the bike in 2010, and Zaffuto says they may get a second one soon. Two officers are currently trained to ride. But it takes a lot more than a motorcycle license to handle the job.
Zaffuto says any motor officer is required to go to a certified school where they learn how to maneuver the 900-pound motorcycles. Officers learn essential moves on the bike such as how to steer and move swiftly through traffic during emergency calls.
The class was not easy. Zaffuto says the class was so tough he was worried he wouldn't pass. He set goals for himself, and it was very rewarding to come out certified to ride.
He learned in class the motorcycle can reach around 120 miles an hour, but he hasn't had to go that fast – yet.
Zaffuto says the intensity of the course gave him more confidence in riding the motorcycle on duty.
"I feel very comfortable on the motorcycle, not to say that a crash can't occur. We can't predict what a motorist is going to do but we have a better confidence level when riding the motorcycle than if you just had a motorcycle license and passed a motorcycle course," he says.
The only other officer trained to ride the motorcycle is Lt. Chris Smith. Zaffuto says Smith was recently promoted after completing his motorcycle training and works nights, which prevents him from riding as often.
Zaffuto works the day shift, starting his days early. He keeps busy once he leaves the office, too, going hunting with his family and spending time with his wife and son.
There are a few factors that Zaffuto has to consider when riding the motorcycle to ensure his safety: for one thing, there isn't nearly as much protection on the bike as opposed to driving a patrol car.
"I have to pick and choose where I stop. I have to constantly be aware of approaching traffic," Zaffuto says.
However, he can dismount the bike more quickly than getting out of a patrol car if he needs to stop someone on foot or if someone is trying to hide something. It's great for traffic enforcement, Zaffuto says, because the bike is much less conspicuous than a police cruiser.
His ability to blend in with traffic allows him to spot people breaking the rules of the road more easily because they don't realize a police officer is right on their tail. Zaffuto says he's been able to stop more motorists texting while driving when he's riding the motorcycle.
"I see traffic violations all the time that happen right in front of me. I see texting. It's a little higher off the ground so I can look into vehicles as they pass and see if the motorist is texting."
All told, Zaffuto says the motorcycle has been a great addition to the department and is hopeful there will be more motorcycle officers in State College in the future.
"It's a great traffic tool. It's a great benefit to the police department," Zaffuto says.