Are Police Horses a Dying Breed?

The ascendancy of stats-based policing has made keeping mounted units harder.

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born1945/Flickr

Modern police departments offer their officers a wide array of ways to cruise around town. There are cops riding in standard squad cars of course, but also ones on motorcycles, electric scooters, bicycles, even dorky Segways. But nearly a century after motorized transport became standard for departments, across the country and around the world there are still police who get around in that most old-fashioned way: astride living-and-breathing horses.

In an era of increasing oversight and decreasing budgets, old-school mounted police programs face an uncertain future. When you factor in all the expenses for training, feeding, stabling, and outfitting, funding a single police horse is decidedly expensive. And horse units, usually deployed at large public events, perform poorly on typical accountability metrics like arrest rates. With so many more cost effective alternatives, mounted police have been forced to make the case that their units still belong.

Last month, Portland, Oregon, became the latest city to consider dropping its horse program. City Commissioner Steve Novick, hoping to redirect the $860,000 the city chips in annually to other budget concerns, had some harsh words for the department’s fleet: “The mounted patrol is largely ornamental.” He explained to his fellow commissioners, “The primary justification for the unit, as I understand it, is ‘crowd control.’ But marauding crowds have not seemed to be a major source of crime in Portland for quite some time.” In Waterloo, Ontario, budgetary concerns similarly led to the disbanding of its program. And in New York City, there are signs Mayor Bill de Blasio's high-profile campaign against the city's "inhumane" horse-drawn carriages could extend to the NYPD's mounted unit.

Novick’s complaints are right on at least one count—maintaining even a small mounted unit is an expensive proposition. Though some departments are able to use donated horses, buying an animal able to deal with the stresses of police work can run $4,000 to $8,000, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sergeant Joseph Haertsch, who has served as the department's equestrian supervisor for the last decade. Additional, specialized training that allows horses to work in crowded city situations, the places where they’re most useful, is essential but costly. “We’ll have helicopters hovering above their heads, shooting from horseback, having horses go through flare patterns,” Haertsch says. “It’s not natural for a horse to do that. They have to be trained to be able to do that. We need training for horses, for officers, and for the unit as a whole.”

In many cases, departments can defray costs by putting some of the onus on the officers who volunteer for the job. When Haertsch first joined L.A.'s mounted unit part-time in 1996, he had to buy his own horse, pay a monthly fee, and provide his own saddle and trailer. Though the department now provides the gear, deputies still have to help pay a horses' stabling costs. “The department pays for the radio car,” Haertsch says, but not for a horse. “This is where it takes very dedicated individuals to do this job, because they have a lot of responsibility."

All of these resources go to support units that are ordinarily quite small. The recently disbanded Waterloo force had just two horses and one full-time officer. In L.A. County, Haertsch says he oversees six full-time and 25 part-time officers out of a county-wide force of 10,000 sworn deputies.

But boosters of urban mounted units say these costs are worthwhile, even if this small group of officers don't rake in the kind of crime-fighting stats that today's law enforcement agencies have come to expect.

For one thing, even without the real threat of “marauding crowds,” officers on horseback can add real value in controlling potentially chaotic downtown events. Jim Ruiz, a retired New Orleans mounted police officer and an associate professor of criminal justice at Penn State University Harrisburg, says that the 12-day peak of the rowdy Mardi Gras celebration was the most important event when he was active on the force.

And since his retirement, Ruiz says, the city has found year-round uses for its saddle-bound officers. Sitting at a busy intersection, an officer astride a tall horse can see for several blocks at once. Horses can also ride down sidewalks and alleys, and go the wrong-way up one-way streets. “In major urban areas, a mounted division is one of the best tools available,” Ruiz writes in an email. “We used to have an axiom in mounted, ‘If you run from us, you'll only go to jail tired.’”

And a horse's most obvious appeal—that people think they're cute—shouldn't be counted out. The public associates police horses with friendly childhood memories like The Lone Ranger and Dudley Do-Right, and Haertsch says that passersby will come up and pet the horse and talk about what's going on in the neighborhood. As Ruiz puts it, “You may have the biggest jerk in uniform, but all the public sees in the horse.”

At the NAMUCA conference, mounted police practiced more than just dealing with "marauding crowds" (Courtesy Joseph Haertsch).

One of the biggest challenges for mounted police units going forward will be making this case to budget-slashing politicians and a public that believes an "ornamental" unit is a waste of time and money. Haertsch, who serves as a board member of the North American Mounted Unit Commanders' Association, says that finding ways to prove horses' relevancy to 21st century policing was a significant focus of the organization's annual conference that took place earlier this winter in L.A. At the conference, which attracted representatives from 49 agencies from across the U.S. and Canada, as well as Brazil, Australia, and Taiwan, discussion focused on the need to show these quantitative measures.

Mounted unit advocates say that these efforts are paying off. Even as some places like Portland consider shuttering their programs, cities that disbanded their units in lean budget years have begun the process of bringing them back. After a decade hiatus, Duluth, Minnesota's mounted police will be back in the saddle this summer. The much-larger Philadelphia Police Department reinstated its mounted unit, originally shut down in 2004, three years ago. (Though this momentum is far from universal; Philly's revived program benefited from retired horses and equipment from Newark's decommissioned program.)

Even in 2014, a century after horses began to disappear from urban roadways, Haertsch is optimistic about the future of horse-back policing. He explains, “If personnel from mounted units go out and write tickets, make arrests, and are proactive and show that it’s not just for parades, a lot of time police executives will recognize the value.”

Top Image: Mounted traffic cop, Boston, 1920s, by Boston Photo News Co. (Flickr/born1945).

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