Helen Abbott was putting her youngest son to bed when she heard the doorbell ring.
It was two days after Thanksgiving in 1931 and the family’s five boys, home from school for the weekend holiday, were nearly asleep. Her husband, Patrolman William L. Abbott, had left for work as a member of the Boston Police Mobile Operations Patrol unit, whose roaring motorcycles and distinct uniforms had been a department fixture for almost two decades.
When she opened the door, three officers were standing on her porch.
“She said she knew immediately,” said Donna LoVerme, 60, William Abbott’s granddaughter.
Hours earlier, Abbott, riding his department-issued 1929 Indian motorcycle, gave chase to a car thief, lost control of the bike, and crashed into a pole. He was 39 years old.
‘Not much has changed . . . We still ride in the rain; we still ride in the cold. ’
Between 1921 and 1961 five other Boston police officers were killed while riding their motorcycles.
On Sunday, LoVerme joined their family members to accept the Boston Police Department’s somber gratitude for their sacrifice at a ceremony honoring the unique squad’s centennial anniversary. The fallen officers were honored in a brief ceremony on Warren Avenue, where Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Police Commissioner Edward Davis, and others unveiled a granite memorial outside the motorcycle unit’s headquarters.
“They can get there the quickest; they make the loudest noise when they arrive. It’s just an incredible brotherhood. It’s the backbone of the police department, I think,” said LoVerme, of Beverly.
Known plainly by its acronym “MOP,” the Mobile Operations Patrol occupies a special place in the department’s tactical operation. Smaller than patrol cars, faster through traffic than a beat cop on foot, and less an anachronism on city streets than an officer on horseback, the two-wheeled units could go where others couldn’t.
MOP’s history winds back to a pair of officers from the Back Bay who began patrolling on motorcycles in 1912, said Captain Patrick J. Crossen, who now commands the unit.
The two riders, without much direction from the department, so impressed police leadership that the commanders ordered dozens more bikes. The first MOP squad, created in 1912, comprised 84 men who assembled for special events, Crossen said, a function it still largely serves today.
The unit still welcomes visiting dignitaries, ushering them though city traffic. The motorcycle officers still perform ceremonious duties at funerals. They still control crowds and show force when the department needs boots on the ground.
“Not much has changed over the years,” said Crossen. “The same guys are still late [for roll call]. The guys still complain about the bosses. We still ride in the rain; we still ride in the cold. And thank God we still ride Harley-Davidsons.”
That brand, which has powered police motorcyclists for decades in Boston, is still the chosen ride for the 38 officers who stood at attention Sunday, their chrome-laden rides parked in a line on Warren Street near MOP headquarters.
Some of the earliest bikes pressed into police service rolled off the Springfield-based assembly line of Indian motorcycles. The Indians and Harleys of similar vintage, with their brown seats of sturdy leather wrapped around a sheet of metal, were hardly comfortable or safe.
Doug Frederick, who runs the American Police Motorcycle Museum in Meredith, N.H., brought six motorcycles that matched the models ridden by the six officers who were killed.
The earliest motorcycles, he said, were little more than bicycles with engines. With rail-thin tires, meager brakes, and foot-long gear shift levers, the bikes produced before about 1950 were difficult to ride.
“These bikes were so primitive,” said Frederick, a former police officer in Hartford, who accompanied the Boston MOP squad on a 30-mile morning tour of the city’s neighborhoods Sunday morning before the ceremony. “It didn’t take a lot to go down.”
Helmets did not arrive on the scene until 1957, he said, and at one point in the state of California, “one in 14 police officers who died, died on a bike,” he said.
“Back then, if you could ride, they put you on the bike.”
A foot-operated brake would apply some slowing power, but disc brakes, the standard on most cars and motorcycles today, wouldn’t appear for years. Suspension systems, to cushion the bumps of Boston streets, were almost nonexistent.
Today, Frederick said, officers are extensively trained in riding in adverse conditions, which along with the more reliable and safe equipment, helps cut down on injuries and deaths.
Of the six MOP officers who died, only one, LoVerme’s grandfather, was pursuing an alleged criminal. The others either lost control of their bikes, suffered equipment malfunctions, were struck by other vehicles, or attempted to avoid one danger on the road only to succumb to another.
Clutching a 1931 photo of her grandfather in his riding uniform, LoVerme exalted the arrival of the crash helmet, 26 years after her grandfather was killed.
“Thank God,” LoVerme said, of the first helmetted riders. “That’s what they all died of — severe head injuries.”