Officer retires reins after 20 years on mounted patrol

September 27, 1995|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,SUN STAFF

Officer Janis West had four years' experience as a Baltimore police officer and had never ridden a horse when her bosses decided in 1979 that women should join the department's mounted unit.

So at age 23, the young officer quickly signed up -- becoming what may be the first woman and African-American to ride a police horse in the United States. Lt. John D. Smith, head of the mounted unit, said that based on research, Officer West was the first woman to become a mounted police officer in the nation.

"I wasn't thinking about that," said Officer West, who retired yesterday after 20 years on the force. "I was always the adventurous type. I said, 'Let's do it.' "

What followed was a career that evolved from the mounted unit's initial task of writing parking tickets to patrolling some of the city's most dangerous and drug-torn neighborhoods. Officer West became one of the most visible officers on horseback.

"She's one of the unique ones," said Officer Gary McDowell. "She is one of the most singly recognized individuals in the mounted unit."

A tall, slender woman who until yesterday rode a former thoroughbred race horse named Cady quickly became known to people around Lexington Market for her prolific distribution of traffic tickets.

Officer West's retirement comes at a time when the city's 107-year-old mounted unit is being scaled back -- from 23 officers last year to its current strength of eight. Positions that have become vacant have not been filled.

Maj. Alvin Winkler, head of the traffic section, which includes the mounted unit, said the decision to not fill those vacancies is part of overall changes to move officers out of specialized units and into patrol.

Lieutenant Smith said he expects to donate some of the 17 horses, possibly to departments in Baltimore County and Salisbury.

Officers in the unit also said their routes are being shifted from the high-crime areas to focus more on downtown and the Inner Harbor. "We can do it all. Our horses are magnets for kids and tourists," Officer McDowell said.

Last month, the unit's oldest horse died of a heart attack after helping catch a suspect who had robbed a West Baltimore store. "This is not just a show-and-tell unit," Lieutenant Smith said.

Several years ago, Officer West tumbled off her mount while galloping to an officer who was in trouble, suffering what colleagues described as a serious injury that took her out of action for months.

She never hesitated to climb back in the saddle. "Most people wouldn't do that," Officer McDowell said. "Not after a fall like that."

Officer West says she is retiring "because it's time. It's time to go. I want to do something else, open a bar, be a flight attendant "

The 39-year-old, dressed in a helmet and long black slicker to ward off yesterday's rain, rode out of the stable under the Jones Falls Expressway and toward her old haunt, Lexington Market. "I'm going to enjoy my last ride," she said.

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