Tall In The Saddle Again, Baltimore Mounteed Police Corral In The Street

URBAN COWBOYS

March 22, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Tom Keyser is a metropolitan reporter for The Sun.

Officer Tony Brown heard the shots and saw the smoke from the gun. A woman had been wounded. Bleeding, she limped toward the Baltimore policeman, who was patrolling near Market Place at the Inner Harbor.

Officer Brown's partner stayed with the woman, but Officer Brown took off after the man with the gun -- not on foot, not in a police car, but on his horse, Sundance.

Sundance barreled down Lombard Street, through the Flag House Courts public housing development, along sidewalks, around fences and finally down an alley. The man glanced over his shoulder twice, saw the Tennessee walker and his uniformed mount closing in, tossed the gun into a trash bin and then threw his hands into the air.

"In a foot chase he could easily have gotten away from me," Officer Brown says now of the October capture of the man, who was charged with assault with intent to commit murder. "The guy just got 15 years," the officer adds proudly.

Around the stable these days officers of Baltimore's mounted unit talk more and more about arrests, and less and less about parking tickets, which for years they dutifully issued around the Inner Harbor. Since Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods expanded the division's duties in 1988 to include the policing of neighborhoods, its arrest total has soared: 83 in 1989, 191 in 1990, 441 last year. About one third of the arrests were for drug offenses.

Now the commissioner is enlarging the unit, which currently has 21 officers and 18 horses. It is projected by fall to have 30 officers and 24 horses.

"I call them my urban cowboys," Commissioner Woods says.

They fit his vision of community policing, a greater police presence around the city. In one block mounted officers will poke their horse's nose into a house so an invalid can pet it. In the next block they might chase a drug dealer. Either way, mounted officers are sure-fire public relations tools.

"I get floods of calls from citizens telling me how great it is to see a horse come down their street or up their alley," says Maj. Alvin Winkler, of the department's Eastern District.

He says these are some of the same citizens who otherwise complain about not seeing enough police officers on the street. Major Winkler and other commanders frequently request mounted officers for temporary duty in their districts, not only because residents like them, but also because they deter crime. They patrol the same few blocks up to eight hours a day. Within the first hour or two word spreads they've arrived, and crime moves off the street.

In recent months, officers on horseback, merely by sauntering through neighborhoods, quelled rashes of car break-ins in the Eastern District, daytime house burglaries in Western, and robberies in an apartment complex in Northeastern. They also torment drug dealers, sneaking up on them from side streets and alleys.

The unit's stable is in a most unlikely spot. It is sandwiched between the Jones Falls Expressway and the Fallsway, next to the city's impound lot and directly behind The Baltimore Sun building. You can easily miss it, although you're likely to smell it if you get close.

The stable used to be a garage where the city repaired cars. It is by no means glamorous. Hostlers take care of the horses in their wooden stalls, a veterinarian is on call 24 hours a day, and a farrier comes around once a week to work on the horses' shoes. But the most striking aspect of the mounted division is the relationship between the officers and their horses.

Bob Petza is the senior member. He has been a mounted officer for 25 years, a city police officer for 32. He is 53, soft-spoken, calm and steady. He rode the same horse for 17 years -- "a big draft horse," as he describes him, a dark chestnut mix named Mike.

Mike was high-spirited. Officer Petza got him because nobody else wanted him.

"He was a strong, powerful horse, always rearing up in the air," Officer Petza says. "I was kind of stuck with him. But after a few years he became one of the best horses in the stable. I could do anything with that horse."

Chuck Walker, a mounted officer until last year, says Mike was "a super, super favorite of everybody. He was absolutely fearless. Even when Mike was getting old, with all those aches and pains, he knew he was out there working. You had to ride him with both hands on the reins."

Mike threw Officer Petza once, at Centre and St. Paul streets. Officer Petza sprained his wrist, hurt his back and missed a month of work. Another night Mike stepped in a pothole and cut his leg. That was his most serious injury.

When Mike retired last summer, Officer Petza adopted him, as officers can do with their horses. Now 26, Mike lives on a farm in Woodlawn. Officer Petza visits him every month or so. Does Mike recognize him?

"I think so. He'll come over if I call him," Officer Petza says, smiling. "Of course, he'd come to anybody if he thought he was going to get something to eat."

Does Officer Petza still ride him?

"No," he says, "he worked here long enough."

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