Patrol's Last Ride?

Cutbacks Could Soon End The City's Storied Mounted Police Unit

August 04, 2009|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,

The Baltimore Police Department is on the verge of losing its storied horseback unit because of budget cuts and is hoping that a private foundation can raise $200,000 before hay and feed run out at the end of September, forcing officers to give up their horses and move to other assignments.

City leaders slashed funds for the unit from $195,300 in fiscal 2009 to $46,900 this year, effectively cutting what is considered one of the oldest police mounted divisions in the country. "They are not going under on my watch," Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said in a statement.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the draft mix horses - Blacky, Butch, Barney, Buster, Binx and Bell - are up to date on veterinarian checkups and have shoes and enough corn, barley and oats to last another 50 to 60 days. They range in age from 5 to 24.

Underscoring their devotion, the six mounted officers who ride regularly have agreed that if the additional money doesn't come through, they will pay the horses' boarding fees until suitable homes can be found. That could cost up to $200 a month per horse.

The mounted unit has been political fodder repeatedly in tough economic times. In 2004, city lawmakers proposed cutting it outright and prompted one City Council member to announce that the horses were headed to the "glue factory." The mayor at the time, Martin O'Malley, suggested that the council cut the unit as a tactic to raises taxes, and funding was restored.

But that posturing five years ago was done before the council voted on the budget. This year, the cuts are already a done deal, and unless money is raised through the Police Foundation or additional funds are discovered in the department's $312 million budget, the police horses that have been a presence on city streets since 1888 will disappear.

"That's a lot of history," retired Officer Robert J. Petza said Monday. He had spent 29 years on horseback before he retired in 1995 at age 56, spending his final day on patrol atop Trinity, a dark chestnut Morgan, riding up Eutaw Place in Bolton Hill and then waving to children at an elementary school.

In a Sun article about his retirement, Petza recalled chasing bank robbers and looters during the 1960s race riots. On Monday, he said his favorite moments were "just some of the riding we did on city streets." He fondly remembered tourists at the harbor, kids at the schools and criminals on the run.

"I was getting drugs and guns while on horseback," Petza said.

The Baltimore Police Mounted Unit was formed 121 years ago by a Confederate soldier who served under Stonewall Jackson to enforce the city's 6 mph speed limit for horse-drawn carriages. As late as 1995, the department still had a horse named after the general.

In his voluminous history of the city Police Department, W.M. Hackley devoted 66 pages to the mounted unit that include pictures of officers patrolling the desolate streets after the Great Fire of 1904, during the race riots and participating in parades. In 1994, a quarter horse named Bozman died after running into a parked car during a chase of a burglary suspect.

Mounted officers serve dual roles as ceremonial representatives and goodwill ambassadors of the department, as well as being hard-nosed cops breaking up disturbances and chasing criminals. Kids flock to pet the horses and chat with the officers. Being on horseback also gives the officers a unique perspective.

"It's not just a luxury, it's a true public safety tool," Guglielmi said. "They patrol the downtown area. They are visible to the public. They command a presence. You can do a lot more on a horse than you can do on foot."

Guglielmi said the funding demise did not come as a surprise and, though unwelcome, he said the police commissioner understands "we're just faced with some tough budget times. We understand the decision the city has to make. We're trying to look for an alternative funding source."

The money raised would pay for feed, care, the stables and a blacksmith - all of which would cost $150,000 a year. That does not include illnesses or injuries to horses. The money also would not be needed to pay officers' salaries.

Most recently, the mounted officers were deployed to the downtown nightclub scene this spring and summer, where crowds drew complaints that they were being noisy and menacing and committing crimes.

"Two horses can clear a crowd of a hundred people out of the street," said Lt. Leslie Bank, a 24-year veteran who has overseen the unit for the past five years.

The lieutenant said she heard rumors in January that the mounted unit would be cut but dismissed them because she knew that Bealefeld supported the horse division. She said the department just bought a horse for $3,000 but couldn't pay the farmer for three months. She said 7-Eleven donated the money.

Now they need more. "We're not looking for people to send us $20," Bank said. "Everybody is hurting right now." She suggested that companies could make donations and get their names on stalls at the stables on Holliday Street, under the Jones Falls Expressway.

The cuts made to the mounted unit came before Mayor Sheila Dixon asked that each department find another 5 percent that could be purged should the budget situation worsen, though Dixon said in an interview that the Police Department is likely to be exempt. Her spokesman, Scott Peterson, declined to comment on the cuts to the mounted unit.

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