(Justice the police horse at Westwood Village in 2/2010, photographed by Becky; other photos in this story by Deanie Schwarz unless otherwise credited)
By Deanie Schwarz
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Anyone who’s lived in West Seattle within the last nine years might have bumped into Seattle Police Department officers on horseback on training rides at Westcrest Park or Westwood Village. For some, that’s the only visible sign of what’s otherwise a semi-secret: The SPD Mounted Patrol Unit is headquartered here, in a barn in Highland Park. But maybe not for much longer.
The unit has about 2,000 square feet of office space attached to a 16,000-square-foot barn and arena, tucked away on three acres at the southern end of Westcrest, surrounded by an old stand of madrona and maple trees. Behind the park driveway and a couple of looming radio towers, the arena and attached paddocks seem far removed from the rush of traffic at 8th and Roxbury (map), the city-county boundary one block to the south.
Now the unit’s future is in question. When Mayor McGinn submitted his proposed budget last week – now in hearings before the City Council Budget Committee – it called for eliminating the Mounted Patrol Unit and transferring its officers to other parts of the department. But in the 100-year history of the SPD Mounted Unit, this is not the first time the patrol officers and horses have been put on the budget chopping block. .
On a recent late summer morning, long before the Mayor’s budget items were announced, the daily mucking-out of the stalls began as usual at 7:00 am, when Glen McMahon, the civilian stable manager arrived.
(Ahead – a look inside the Mounted Unit, as well as a look at how Portland saved theirs in the face of budget cuts.)
Often greeted by Badge, an old barn cat, Glen leads each of the horses out to the day paddocks for their breakfast of orchard hay, a couple of pounds of grain, and supplements, if needed. By the time the patrol officers arrive at the barn – most with rambunctious family dogs leaping out of their private trucks with them – fresh shavings have been pitched into the stalls for that night. He then sets out to ensure the trailer will securely transport the horses and officers to their assigned beats.
During the busy summer months, and if enough people are available, the unit splits up the herd and patrols some of the busier city parks, especially Golden Gardens, Alki and Green Lake. Most often during the year, however, the patrol unit covers the downtown corridor, from the north end of SODO, up through Westlake to Belltown and the waterfront.
The patrol’s high-profile presence downtown might appear routine as they do their ambassador work with kids and tourists, along with assisting the public and issuing citations. But the unit members are continually training back at the barn and at other local facilities, refining the unique skillset these highly specialized horses possess. Fall is the time of year when officers and horses attend additional classes to review the western style of riding, which offers useful tools immediately applied to the daily encounters on the street. Most of the officers currently riding with the Mounted Unit have been riding their entire lives, and, even though they are expert equestrians (some have been with the unit for nearly two decades), are still being trained to train the horses.
(August 2008 WSB photo from Southwest Precinct “Picnic at the Precinct“)
From complex crowd control maneuvering, to the still stance a lone officer and his mount maintain on city corners, daily reinforcement is required. A horse that’s new to the unit is not put on full-time street duty until after 18-24 months in the initial phase of training. Continued reinforcement with each horse, regardless of years of service, by the single rider assigned to them, accounts for a significant amount of the time spent with officer and horse. Working exclusively together, an officer knows intimately his horse’s quirks; their mounts are partners whose trust and confidence in the officer is critical for the high-caliber performance of the horse.
Unlike most other horses, these are trained for crowd control. The animals are put through rigorous conditions while being taught to trust commands that may ask them to walk through fire, tear gas, or explosions, and/or to respond to leg and foot cues while being jostled or attacked by hostile and uncooperative crowds. They must also learn how to stand still alone, independent from the herd social structure within which they are most comfortable. To enable an animal to behave in ways that are not necessarily natural/instinctive requires, according to Sgt. Grant Ballingham, a relationship of trust, and is most successful when one rider is assigned to one horse. And it takes time – years even – to embed and reinforce the behaviors after the first few years of incremental training.
In some incidents, like a protest on Capitol Hill last April, the unit is deployed to provide vital support to other units. Sgt. Ballingham points out that 300 people in a crowd can see an officer on foot, but a mounted officer can be seen by 1,000. So the Mounted Patrol makes a big impression, efficiently, with fewer officers required. The horse teams work to create a “force multiplier” effect, enhancing the strategies of the bike and foot officers working a crowd-containment situation.
Over the years, the Mounted Patrol’s total number of officers and horses has waxed and waned. Cycles of budgeting have had the numbers as high as ten officers, and as low as the current four full-time officers (plus two on-loan officers from the West and North Precincts). Until $1 million was invested in the current Westcrest stable in 2001, it had various locations around the city. Additional monies have since been put into improvements in the barn and its attachments.
Prior to the city investing in the West Seattle facility, the unit had been housed in a deteriorating building at Fort Lawton at Discovery Park. The city has historically determined over and over that the unit be preserved. While there was a severe reduction in the Mounted Unit prior to WWII, the city reinstated the unit in 1973. In the 1980’s, a looming budget threat led to the formation of a citizens’ group, Save Our Steeds. In researching this story, it seems the unit apparently has been completely funded by city resources for years. The Seattle Police Foundation has sponsored training programs for the unit, but such support has not been made available for a few years, unlike Portland, OR, where a Friends of the Portland Mounted Patrol citizens’ group is an active foundation financially supporting some expenditures such as veterinary care or equipment. We had to look outside the city to learn how such an organization might affect our own Mounted Unit in Highland Park.
In Portland, the same budget crisis situation played out earlier this year, but supporters rallied to raise more than $100,000, which was accepted by the City Council and which kept their unit (which has just a couple more horses than Seattle) viable for another year. Bob Ball, one of the organizers for that effort, told WSB that such public-private partnerships are fairly institutionalized in Portland. Ball said that in the time between the notice of the budget threat to the delivery of the check to the City Council, enormous outreach efforts were made online, through e-mail lists and in-person flyering, in addition to contacting city media. Ball pointed out that the group had been pre-existing as a 501-3(c) before the crisis and had been partnering with various enterprises in Portland that annually donate funds to support the unit. When the crisis unfolded, they were able to expediently raise additional funds from the public.
Another Portland business member of that group, Bill McCormick, has strong ties to the downtown Seattle commercial corridor where the Seattle unit patrols. The co-founder and owner of McCormick & Schmick Seafood Restaurants, which also has downtown Portland and Seattle restaurants, told WSB from his Oregon home on Friday that “eliminating the Mounted Unit would be penny wise and pound foolish. Three words for that: WTO. Seattle was scarred for a long time because of the negative national and international coverage. Horses proved extremely effective [at that time] in crowd control – that was their main purpose. And I would be really reticent to put the horse patrol on the chopping block. When needed, they are sitting at a high vantage point and are [uniquely] effective. And it also does the city good to control daily street crimes from drug transactions and the like.”
McCormick sees another less tangible, but valid reason for the need for such a patrol: “It is good imagery and good public relations for tourists. We see that in Portland, and Seattle has just as large a tourist draw. The presence is a human presence. In this era of mechanization, children and families see police officers in cars with shotguns and computers and caged dogs in the back. When I grew up we had the image of a more friendly police officer. They aren’t getting many tools to say the right things and express the right presence. They have a very difficult job.”
The upkeep of the horses, equipment and facilities includes services from a farrier to shoe the horses every eight weeks.
For 19 years, West Seattle-born Tom Wright has been servicing the SPD’s horses, and was on hand the afternoon WSB checked in at the barn for any comments regarding the proposed city budget. Police personnel who were there couldn’t comment – SPD’s Media Unit leader, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, explained that “there is a general protocol” which doesn’t allow any comments from the officers on proposed budgets because they can change and are still in process – but the grim look on unit members’ faces spoke volumes about the potential for losing their partners.
Farrier Wright, however, who still has a mother and brother living in West Seattle, spoke freely as a passionate supporter of the unit.
If he could, he wouldn’t charge for his services for three years, he told WSB. “Oh, there has to be money somewhere!” Wright said, clearly in exasperation. Whether he will be able to follow through on what may be a spontaneous suggestion, his sense of loyalty from a longstanding relationship with the Unit is clear. Wright had said they he wanted to do “something” to support the unit and as a private citizen he has more freedom. He had at first thought, he told WSB, about gathering his horse-community buddies to ride together in support of the threatened unit – perhaps at Qwest Field or somewhere similar – to initiate a large showing of support for the demanding and difficult work the unit undertakes for the citizens and visitors of Seattle.
A few days after our conversation last week at the barn, Wright contacted WSB to tell us that McCormick had offered his South Lake Union restaurant up as a venue for a fundraiser and to organize an effort to save the Seattle Police Department’s Mounted Unit and keep them in Highland Park. As we got off the phone with the born-and-raised former West Seattleite, he told us he was being asked to contact a number of major potential contributors toward such an effort and would be making phone calls to them immediately. We’ll continue to follow up, and will let you know if and when those efforts become reality.
Meantime, the City Council continues to encourage comments on the budget. Here’s a quick way to comment online – and remember that there’s an official in-person public hearing coming up next week here in West Seattle, one of only three around the city – October 13th, South Seattle Community College‘s Brockey Center, sign-ups at 5, hearing starts at 5:30.