When Mayor John F. Street and Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson shut down the Philadelphia Police Department’s mounted patrol in 2004, the unit was getting $190,000 in annual funding from the city.
The powers-that-were blamed the city’s projected $200 million-plus operating budget deficit that year for cutting the 115-year-old horseback police unit.
Seven years later, a new police commissioner, Charles Ramsey, is unflinchingly pro-horse and trying to pool the resources to start a new mounted patrol. He figures it’ll cost around $2.5 million to get the job done.
With large-scale mounted operations at least several months away, the unit got a sizable boost on July 27 when attorney Jimmy Binns’ Cop Wheels Program donated a pair of $15,000 horse trailers, thereby tripling the unit’s trailer fleet.
During the dedication event, Cop Wheels also gave two new off-road motorcycles to the police department. The customized bikes, each costing $8,500, will be allocated to the 19th district in West Philadelphia. Two old bikes from the 19th will be redistributed to other units.
THE TRIPLE CROWN
“Before today, I only had one horse trailer and eleven horses, so I just increased my ability to deploy by three-fold,” said Lt. Dan McCann, commander of the reconstituted mounted patrol.
“We now have the makings of a real honest-to-goodness mounted patrol unit once again,” Binns said.
After arriving in Philadelphia in January 2008, Ramsey wasted little time in declaring his intent to bring back the mounted unit, just as he had done in Washington, D.C., where he previously had served as police commissioner. Philadelphia’s original mounted patrol began in 1889 and was a function of the Fairmount Park police until 1972, when the city police department adopted the unit.
Advocates for the unit say that mounted officers are effective in controlling large crowds of people often seen at public festivals, sporting events, political demonstrations or other events. Aside from the physical presence of a 1,100-pound beast, horses provide officers with a birds-eye view of activity.
Further, horses provide better access to remote areas of the city’s massive Fairmount Park system than patrol cars or bicycles and are generally great ambassadors for the department.
“When we have crowd control, we can probably do it by just showing up,” McCann said. “An officer on a mount is like ten officers on the ground.”
A FINANCIAL ROADBLOCK
Nonetheless, Ramsey’s initial effort stalled.
“We got into it maybe a month or two, and the budget crisis hit,” McCann said. “We had to suspend it. (Then) we got the foundation involved.”
Last November, Ramsey announced a partnership with the department and the independent, non-profit Philadelphia Police Foundation to solicit outside funding for the start-up. Information about the foundation, including a donation form, is available at www.phillypolicefoundation.org
Among the many tasks involved in re-launching the unit, acquiring horses has been among the smoothest.
In January, the Newark, N.J., police force shut down its mounted patrol and donated four steeds to Philadelphia. Later, a rescue organization in Quakertown donated three more. Subsequently, the city bought four additional horses from a farm in Maryland, but it has yet to take possession of those.
When the unit shut down in 2004, it had 19 horses. While the official justification for disbanding it was budgetary, many have speculated other motivations.
John Timoney, who was police commissioner from 1998 to 2003, was a strong advocate for bicycle patrols in crowd control situations. In fact, he personally rode a bicycle around town during the 2000 Republican National Convention here.
Johnson served as Timoney’s second-in-command during this expansion of bicycle squads.
TROUBLES WERE MOUNTING
Around the same time, the old mounted patrol was enduring a litany of in-house scandals. In 2002, three officers from the unit and an employed civilian were indicted for billing the unit for personal purchases totaling about $19,000. Two defendants pleaded guilty, and a federal jury convicted two others.
In 2003, one member of the unit was convicted of molesting a 13-year-old girl repeatedly, including at least once while in uniform.
In response, the police department cleaned house. McCann was appointed the new commander in 2003, but his tenure only lasted until the following year’s shutdown.
The lieutenant hopes to round up 25 or more horses for the reorganized unit. Some may be thoroughbreds. Others will be standardbreds and crossbreeds. Many will have prior police experience, but that’s not required.
“Everybody has their opinion of what the best horse should be, but they all have their own personalities,” McCann said. “Just like people, we’ll take them out and get them in shape.”
EXPERIENCE NOT REQUIRED
Likewise, prior experience with horses is not a prerequisite for officers assigned to the unit. Most important to McCann is that new members are highly respected and motivated officers.
“I interviewed guys (and women) who are good cops and hard chargers out there making arrests. I figure I can train them to be mounted officers, so let’s get good cops,” McCann said.
Officers Lee Cannady and Marquise Robinson were among the first appointees. Both ride former Newark horses. Cannady’s is named Tim in honor of slain Sgt. Tim Simpson, while Robinson’s is named Steve in memory of slain Sgt. Steve Liczbinski.
Cannady has a long personal history with horses.
“I’ve been riding all my life,” he said.
Much of his riding experience has been with the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Strawberry Mansion, a non-profit organization that introduces inner-city youths to riding. Members of the club often ride throughout Fairmount Park, including the area around Belmont Plateau.
For the officer or the horse, however, frolicking in the park is nothing like doing police work on a horse.
BIG GUYS WORK THE CROWD
“You have to get acclimated to stuff like this — the crowd,” Cannady said during the trailer-donation ceremony in front of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “You want them to get used to loud bangs and stuff.”
Though Steve and Tim already are 14 and 17 years old, respectively, they should have many good years of service ahead of them. They could work until age 25 or 30, Cannady said.
“As long as you keep them young and moving, they’ll be pretty good,” he said.
The biggest challenge for the unit so far has been finding a place to set up shop. The unit’s official headquarters is at the Police Academy on State Road in the Northeast, but the horses are kept at a stable in Ambler while the police department looks for a permanent home within the city.
Before 2004, the mounted patrol operated out of stables and offices on Krewstown Road, south of Grant Avenue, in Pennypack Park. After the city dismantled the unit, it essentially gutted the stables, leaving them in no condition for police operations. Now, the Department of Parks and Recreation occupies the site.
At first, building a new stable and headquarters for the unit was considered. But that option has been deemed too costly. Recently, the department learned of a private stable that may become available in the Fox Chase area, although no site had been selected as the Times went to press.
In the meantime, officers must travel to Ambler to train. The horses must be brought by trailer to the city for deployment.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Another big start-up cost is equipping the unit with proper gear. Ongoing expenses include feed, veterinary care and supplies. The plan is to use outside funding to get the unit operational. Then, after a couple of years, the city will assume operating costs.
“When we get to a point where our stables and headquarters are together, we’re going to do daily patrols,” McCann said.
Besides the parks, horses could be deployed to busy shopping districts like Cottman and Frankford avenues or 52nd and Market Streets, as well as nightlife centers such as South Street or Delaware Avenue. Horses could also be sent into high-crime neighborhoods where officers will try to develop a rapport with the locals.
“That will go a long way helping detectives gather intelligence,” McCann said.
Not everybody is bullish on the idea of a new mounted patrol, however.
After Ramsey announced his intention to rebuild the unit, animal rights activists started an Internet-based petition against the plan. A group identifying itself as Animal ACTivists of Philly collected 785 “signatures” via an electronic form on www.change.org before the petition expired three months ago.
The petition called the mounted unit plan inhumane, too costly and tactically irrational. The text of the petition provided no factual evidence or expert opinion to support its position.
A page created by the activist organization on www.meetup.com claims it has 153 members, including 10 organizers or leaders. Among those signing the petition were those identifying themselves as residents of Florida, New York state, Washington state, Nevada, Ohio, Louisiana, Oregon and Trinidad and Tobago.
Outside of the online protest, however, there has been little opposition to the program.
“There’s nobody who doesn’t like a horse and no criminal who isn’t afraid of one,” Binns said. ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or email@example.com