By Alex Lippa
---- — PLAISTOW — Over the past 15 years, more than 1,000 police officers have completed Phil Miles’ police motorcycle training course. Just five of them were women.
“You just don’t see many come in here,” said Miles, head instructor at New England Police Vehicle Leasing in North Hampton.
Last week was one of those rare times.
Plaistow police Officer Sonya Robicheau, who has been with the department since 2011, completed the week-long course last Friday.
She joins School Resource Officer Joan Marsilia as female Plaistow officers who are certified to ride police motorcycles.
“I just love to ride,” Robicheau said. “It’s surprising that there haven’t been many (female police officers) who are certified to ride motorcycles.”
She said she had driven smaller sport bikes before, but the 800-pound Harley Davidson FLHP Road King was a different animal.
“It was definitely a struggle,” Robicheau said. “There were people in the class who were surprised that I came back after the first day.”
Miles estimated Robicheau had to pick her bike up about 20 times on the first day.
“She had taken a fall and I could tell she was apprehensive about it,” Miles said. “But we coached her and told her to let the bike do the work.”
The class simulates situations which an officer might encounter on a motorcycle.
“We went up to 30 mph and had to shift down to brake as if a truck had just pulled out in front of you,” Robicheau said. “We did slalom cones as if you were passing cars.”
By the end of the class, Robicheau was able to pass the final exercise, which includes two hard right turns and weaving the bike in between traffic cones.
Robicheau is one of four female Plaistow police officers on the force. Twenty-four percent of Plaistow police officers are women, higher than many police departments in the area.
Tim Merrill of the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council said 10 percent of officers statewide are female. The U.S. Department of Justice did a study in 2007 and found 12 percent of local police officers nationwide were women.
Windham is at 16 percent, while Derry is just at 6 percent. Salem and Atkinson have no female officers, and only one of Hampstead’s eight police officers is a woman. Londonderry has just three women on its 59-member force, 5 percent.
Derry, Atkinson and Windham do not have motorcycle details. Hampstead has five officers on their motorcycle unit but none are women. Six of Plaistow’s 17 officers are certified to drive motorcycles.
Plaistow police Chief Stephen Savage said Robicheau’s success is just another example of the evolution of police officers.
“We believe we have an environment that is favorable to female police officers,” Savage said. “We are getting a lot of female candidates because of it.”
Savage said 20 percent of the town’s candidate pool for new police officers are women.
“Those numbers are definitely up from where they were in years past,” he said. “Not too long ago, a female officer in the police academy was unheard of.”
Merrill said in the last five years, 12 percent of police academy students is female.
Miles said the small percentage of women who take the motorcycle course is a reflection of how many women are in the police force, but there are other factors, too.
“Some of it has to do with size and ability,” he said. “These motorcycles are big. Some males show up and have trouble touching the ground.”
But Robicheau was successful.
“Everyone was happy for me,” she said. “A lot know just how difficult this is.”
Robicheau will start patrolling on the Harley once she has her full gear.
“It’s just a great way to be more visible than being in a car,” she said. “With the windows up, you are often less accessible.”