Officer Hangs Up His Spurs

June 03, 1995|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff Writer

Say adios to this concrete cowboy.

After 29 years on horseback, where he has chased looters in the '60s race riots and bank robbers making getaways in taxicabs, Baltimore police Officer Robert J. Petza took his last ride yesterday.

"I've been through nine police commissioners and four horses," said Officer Petza, 56. "I've always liked horses, and I've always thought it's something exciting, to be able to ride a horse downtown."

His retirement marks the end of his travels, in which he became one of the longest-riding officers in the history of the city's 107-year-old mounted unit.

The 18 horses and 12 officers in the mounted unit, at a tiny stable under the Jones Falls Expressway downtown, spend most of their days on neighborhood drug patrols. The officers coined the term "concrete cowboys" to describe themselves in their strange role as urban equestrians.

Officer Petza's mount on his final day was Trinity, a dark chestnut Morgan who's been his partner for four years. They moseyed up Eutaw Place past the grand rowhouses of Bolton Hill, then on to a bleaker area around Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School, where several kindergartners looked out from the broken-down playground and waved excitedly.

"We like to come out for the kids," Officer Petza said as the children patted Trinity with trembling hands. "Some of them have never touched a horse before."

One 5-year-old boy looked up, pointed to Officer Petza's gun, and asked, "Can I touch that?"

The officer, a soft-spoken, easygoing man who says he never fired his gun while on horseback, pulled in the reins on that request. "No, son, I can't let you touch that," he said.

A Highlandtown native, Officer Petza started on the police force in 1959 and worked in regular patrol units for his first seven years. In August 1966, he decided to join the mounted unit, spurred partly by fond childhood memories of horseback riding at his uncle's farm in Rosedale.

Once primarily a traffic-enforcement unit, today's mounted squad is deployed in high-crime drug areas and is often used for emergency "crime-in-progress" calls and for rounding up suspects on the run.

"Bob is a pretty relaxed guy, but he can really hold his own on a horse. He's a top rider," said Sgt. Vince Pacelli, one of Officer Petza's former mounted patrol partners.

Officer Petza made a name for himself as a crafty rider who outsmarted criminals who tried to escape down narrow alleys and other city obstacles, Sergeant Pacelli recalled.

"We chased this guy once, he was hopping fences and zigzagging around courtyards, going in and out of a building, and Bob and I just kept shadowing him," Sergeant Pacelli said. "Finally we just wore him down and he gave up."

The Holliday Street stable is a cozy place, with pictures on the wall that memorialize James Robert Moog, a Confederate soldier who served under Stonewall Jackson and formed the city's mounted unit in 1888. The patrol's purpose was to enforce the city's 6 mph speed limit for horse-drawn vehicles.

There's still a horse in the unit called Stonewall, along with Bartles, Yankee, Sundance, Skipjack and Dawn. The breeds range from quarter horses to Tennessee Walkers to Belgians, almost all of them donated.

Officer Petza recalls one story showing the tactical advantage of a horse on a modern-day city street.

In 1990, a man robbed a bank at Baltimore and Charles streets and made what seemed a clean getaway. He had jumped in a taxicab and disappeared in heavy mid-afternoon traffic by the time the patrol cars arrived.

Officer Petza, who back then rode a muscular quarter horse named Mike, had a hunch that the cab would get stuck in congested traffic near subway construction work on Baltimore Street.

"I was able to make my way through the traffic, and sure enough, there was the cab at a light at St. Paul and Baltimore," Officer Petza said. "I rode up with my gun out and ordered him out of the car. He still had the satchel of money. We really surprised him."

But the veteran officer doesn't take the credit for the collar.

"It was Mike. He was a super horse, big, strong, and willing to go anywhere. He wasn't afraid of anything," said Officer Petza, recalling his four-legged partner of 17 years.

Before Mike, he rode quarter horses named Bunny and Reno.

He readily admits life isn't always very exciting on horseback. He's done his share of riding in freezing rain, of having jumpy horses startle at the sound of backfiring cars, and once he chased down a man who had swiped a large flounder from the old fish market downtown.

"I'll miss it all now, though," he said. Officer Petza lives in Jessup and plans to spend a lot of time in his greenhouse.

As for Mike, Officer Petza's old favorite, he entered the police mounted unit retirement program four years ago. He's been put out to pasture on a farm in Manassas, Va., and Officer Petza goes down to visit him every once in a while.

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