Manes swaying and ears erect, six horses in various shades of chestnut and bay backed out of a van and onto the grounds of the Los Angeles Police Department’s 3-week-old mounted unit headquarters.
The horses were there to try out for jobs with the Police Department, but Officer Nancy Reeves, watching them go through their paces, was having a hard time deciding among them.
“My problem is, I like them all,” she said. “I’m so excited at this whole thing. We’ve worked so hard and fought so hard to get this unit started and now it’s happening. This is what it’s all about.”
It is 10 months after the Los Angeles Police Department, bolstered by a $495,000 grant from the Ahmanson Foundation, approved a proposal to create a full-time mounted patrol. And, at last, the unit is well on its way.
The stables on the banks of the Los Angeles River just outside Griffith Park are complete. The training ring is built. The 16 officers so far assigned to the unit are testing horses bought by the department on a consignment basis and more horses are arriving as fast as the department can buy them.
40 Horses Planned
By next July, when the unit is scheduled to be fully operational, there should be 40 horses. The officers, drawn from riders throughout the department, will total 32. And Los Angeles--after years of talks about a full-time unit which went nowhere until the Ahmanson Foundation got into the act--will join the more than 100 cities nationwide that have full-time mounted patrols.
Along with the grant from the philanthropic group--enough to buy the site of the former Los Feliz stables and outfit what a large sign out front proclaims as “The Ahmanson Equestrian Facility"--the Los Angeles City Council has earmarked $729,000 to establish the unit, $80,000 of which is budgeted to buy the horses.
The police officers, who have left everything from traffic patrols to detective units to join the patrol, say the money was wisely spent because the unit will help fight crime. While acknowledging the horses will be a great public relations tool, they say the unit is not just for show.
“Most people don’t come up and pet a police car, but they love to come up and say hi to a horse,” said Lt. Dave Aikens, who heads the unit. “But these are not ceremonial horses. . . . They have a tremendous presence. They have tremendous mobility, visibility. Plus they’re intimidating. Gang members don’t like us.”
Because of the distractions the horses are likely to encounter on patrol, the department is buying only quarter horse geldings, animals that are generally sturdily built and even-tempered, Aikens said. The department also requires the horses be of a dark color so they will be uniform and between 5 and 12 years old.
The unit is already assigned to patrol the busy Broadway shopping district downtown daily between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Police divisions throughout the city have requested the unit’s services after that, Aikens said. Aikens said that after all 32 officers are hired, he will be able to send about 16 officers on daily patrol.
The mounted patrol will man major special events and control large crowds, Aikens said. But the patrol can also be used in missing people searches in rugged terrain not easily covered by police vehicles. Officers on horseback can also more easily patrol areas where narcotics are bought and sold, such as Venice Beach and MacArthur Park, he said.
Beyond all that, mounted patrol officers say they just like the idea of being seen as good guys by citizens who customarily regard them with suspicion. They say the positive image the patrol projects is a significant advantage to the department.
“Put us on a horse and people love us,” Reeves said.
The full-time unit will replace the department’s 7-year-old volunteer mounted patrol. Its creation came as a relief to the mounted officers, who since 1981 volunteered their own horses and services at many public events but had to pay for almost all the expenses they incurred.
Officers were paid for their time and reimbursed at the rate of 25 cents a mile to get their horses to work sites. But the amount of mounted patrol details has increased by more than 10 times since the first year the volunteer unit was created, and officers have been dividing their time and attention between their work on the mounted patrol and their regular assignments.
Outside the stables last week, Officer Edward Elliott, who was a motorcycle officer until joining the unit three weeks ago, watched the horses navigate an obstacle course under the scrutinizing eyes of a veterinarian and a trainer.
He looked out toward the ring and spoke softly, almost to himself.
“I’m trading my iron horse for a real one,’ he said.