Police harnessing an asset

Horses: Baltimore City police have found some extra horsepower can make the job easier - and more fun.

September 12, 2000|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris knows what it's like to be rescued by the cavalry.

Walking the beat as a New York police officer, Norris once caught a suspected necklace-snatcher in Times Square. But soon, a hostile, shouting crowd began gathering around him.

The next thing he knew, he was being pulled out of the crowd by his collar: The NYPD mounted patrol had arrived.

"It would have been a battle if they'd come in [on foot] to try and get me," Norris said.

That incident, along with a year's experience as a mounted officer in New York, gave Norris an appreciation for the versatility and effectiveness of equestrian police work.

And now he wants to bolster Baltimore's mounted unit, which has been in decline for the last decade.

"It's a visible presence," Norris said of the mounted police unit.

He conceded that other priorities will have to come first in a city beset with drug-related violence, but said if the number of officers in the department increases, "we'd certainly increase the count of riders."

That count now stands at five - down from 22 officers in the early 1990s - and there are now six more horses than riders.

Mounted officers recently were concentrated in the crime-ridden Eastern District. They found that even on the city's busiest sidewalk drug markets, a horse can succeed where a police cruiser fails.

"If there are guys hanging up on the corner and they see a patrol car go by, they just look up and say, `It's just another cop.' But when a horse comes up, their eyes are glued and they start to walk," said Sgt. Therman Reed, who heads the mounted unit.

Reed said that mounted units have some obvious natural advantages over foot patrols.

"You get to actually run down a suspect and they pretty much surrender," Reed said. "Sometimes when you're on foot chasing a subject, you just run out of gas."

Reedsaid there was a pronounced shift in manpower under Norris' predecessor, former Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.

Yet Reed, whose desire to work as a mounted policeman stretches back to watching horseback officers as a child in downtown Baltimore, is optimistic that his ranks will expand as the department puts more emphasis on street patrolling.

There are limits on when and where the department will deploy mounted officers.

In the Eastern District, they made their rounds only in the daytime, but now they are working the 4-to-midnight shift in Fells Point and Little Italy.

It is in such crowded, tourist-heavy areas that horses are perhaps most valuable, police say.

First, officers say, a cop on horseback is a magnet for camera-toting visitors, children and animal lovers. A horse can engender feelings of goodwill and fascination that your typical patrol car can't match.

"It's kind of like an icebreaker," said Officer Janine Sharp, a three-year veteran of the mounted unit and a trainer of novice police riders. "People won't come and talk to a police officer, but they'll come up to a horse."

In addition, these parts of town sometimes generate large crowds, which often cannot be penetrated effectively by a foot officer or car.

Reed said the special expenses of the mounted unit - equipment, horse feed, veterinary care - come out to about $20,000 per year. Most of the horses are donated.

Completely aside from whatever benefit mounted units add to law enforcement, there is this basic fact: A lot of officers want to do the work.

They often view mounted duty as a welcome change from foot or auto patrol, and clamor to fill openings within the unit. Reed said that when he joined the division in 1988, he was one of only two officers selected from 62 applicants.

Part of the attraction stems from the unit's ceremonial duties and its long history - founded in 1888, it is one of the oldest mounted forces in the country.

Officer Melvin L. Cross had never even been on a horse when he left his post as a detective in the Violent Crimes Task Force to become a mounted policeman 3 1/2 years ago.

He summed up the allure of horseback police work: "It looked like it was a cool thing to do.

"It's a lot of fun. You form a sense of camaraderie with the horse," he said from atop a steed named Zeus. "You never gotta argue about where you're going to eat. They don't fuss. They don't complain."

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