Costs and benefits for Raleigh’s mounted police

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Blade stamps his hooves, evidently anxious to keep moving. Officer John Hood pats his neck and scans Moore Square, keeping an eye on the students and residents who gather there.

“We develop a relationship with people down here,” he says, indicating a group of homeless people near the bus station. “They’ll tell us stuff, let us know if gangs are meeting around here.”

Community relationships are the core job of Raleigh’s mounted police officers, four of whom patrol the streets with their horses, Blade, Flash, Cody and Ike.

You can usually spot two patrolling the city’s parks each day, watching for drug and alcohol use, issuing parking tickets, communicating with the public and, yes, occasionally pulling over speeding cars.

Photo by Karen Tam.

Officers like Hood and his partner, Meredith Sharon, are usually assigned to the equine program if they have previous riding experience. Officers go through about eight weeks of training at the start, learning first to ride bareback before acquiring their own specially made saddle.

The horses also undergo training, experiencing fireworks, flapping objects such as tarps and other noise pollution such as leaf blowers, chain saws and sirens – anything that they might encounter on in the city.  The horses wear rubber shoes to better walk on city streets and even have riot gear if needed.

The equine units are often on patrol during large events, allowing officers to see over the crowd. That came in handy during a 2003 rally at the Capitol, Hood said, when the crowd began throwing things.

“The saying goes, ‘One horse has the power of 10 officers on foot,’” he said. “People respect the horse and its abilities as well as our abilities on them.”

They also came in handy just two weeks ago, when a 3-year-old girl went missing at Umstead Park. The horses were about to begin searching the forest, just as the girl was found.

The four current horses were donated by residents. They live on a 100-acre site near Garner, southeast of the city. Each day officers trailer the horses to a downtown barn to saddle up. Blade and Officer Sharon’s horse, Flash, are Tennessee Walkers. Ike is a Hanoverian and Cody is an American Quarter Horse.

Photo by Karen Tam.

Officers ride English style, which is the more upright posture seen in competitions, compared to the more relaxed seating of cowboy or Western style. The saddles have no horns. Aside from looking more professional, Sharon says it’s easier to get off the horse in a hurry.

Meanwhile, she leans in her saddle and she and Flash move a few steps. “Sir,” she says, to a man walking in the square with a paper bag-covered aluminum can. “I need to check your drink.”

Hood explains that on a horse, it’s easier to keep an eye on things.

“You can smell marijuana when you’re riding a horse. You can’t smell it in car,” he said.

The horses work year-round, only staying in when it’s too hot, too cold, or pouring down rain. On those days, he and Sharon ride in patrol cars.

“The horses could handle [the rain],” Hood said. “We’re just not too thrilled about it.”

Not too many people run from a horse, but Hood did have to chase one man down. A man used counterfeit money at the Subway sandwich shop in City Market, and was running away when Officer Hood heard about it.

“He heard the click clack of the hooves behind him,” Hood said. “I pinned him against the wall … put him in handcuffs. That was rare. After that, he said he’d never run again.”

Photo by Karen Tam.

Horses live between 30 and 35 years. When these police horses ready to retire, usually around the age of 25, they are returned to the original owner. If that person does not want the horse, the officer who rode the horse longest has the option of keeping the animal.

It was about this time of year, in 1988, when the horses first hit the Raleigh streets.

Now, at a time when the police department is defending itself against the not-long-ago shooting of an unarmed woman, community relationships are more important than ever.

Community policing and outreach has been Police Chief Harry Dolan’s pet project, often given credit for helping reduce the city’s crime rate. Police reported 15 homicides in 2009 – a large drop from the 32 in 2008 and a far cry from the 23 reported in 2007.

Photo by Karen Tam.

The cost of feeding and housing the horses is about $940 per month, plus vet bills if the horse is injured or sick. That’s more than $11,000 per year compared to the average cost of $4,900 per year to operate a patrol car.

But although the horses are not inexpensive, Capt. Stacy Deans said the cost-benefit analysis cannot be settled with figures.
“We have to look a cost benefit analysis with respect to what they provide for the public,” he said.

Deans pointed out that during the Hillsborough Street celebration in September, children and families came up to the horses and spoke with officers.

“That was by far the biggest attraction. Just to let people come up and talk to them, to let the kids rub them — that is a benefit for the police department. It’s a bit of an icebreaker. To see those horses standing out in front of Memorial Auditorium or Progress energy center, it’s a good attraction.”

Officers Hood and Sharon agree. As they stand in Moore Square, multiple people come up and pet the animals.

“I love these horses,” says one woman, stroking Blade.

Photo by Karen Tam.

Rumors often fly about cutting the equine police program, but Deans said he has not heard anything concrete.

“That typically is one of the first things that gets cut across the nation [at police departments],” he said. “We’re fortunate that our city council and mayor and manager have done such a good job managing our finances and we haven’t been hit like that yet.”

The horses are also a lot of work for the officers, who provide care for the animals.

“They have to have a love of this,” Deans said. “It is a lot of time over and above the normal duties of a patrol officer, grooming and feeding.”

But Officer Sharon says the horses are the best part of the job.

“Some days you don’t want to come to work,” said Officer Sharon. “But the horses make you want to come in.”

Hood said he loves to be out, more closely in contact with people who might be afraid to approach a patrol car. Besides, when patrolling in a car, you’re often only responding to bad news, he said.

“And what I do is not always negative,” Hood said. “It’s a different job in law enforcement.”

One thought on “Costs and benefits for Raleigh’s mounted police

  1. Having seen the mounted police around town it was great to learn more about the program. Thanks for the interesting perspective!