Seattle city budget: Citizen push to save SPD Mounted Unit?

(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.

33 Replies to "Seattle city budget: Citizen push to save SPD Mounted Unit?"

  • ArborHeightsMom October 5, 2010 (1:38 pm)

    This is one of those community building services that not only differentiates Seattle but keeps it in touch with its history. Both my kids have been on many field trips to the police horse barn, and as this article points out, the officers provide an ambassador role in addition to legitimate and necessary police work. Horses make the SPD approachable, and frankly, are nice to look at. They help support the local economy by virtue of the hay they eat and the services provided to support them. On a personal note, we bring them apples on Christmas Eve and it’s been so nice to have them in West Seattle. I would happily participate in a fundraiser. Good to see support from McCormick and Schmick. It would be awful to lose the mounted patrol and the sense of continuity and history they provide downtown. I always smile when I see them and the presence of the police barn near Westcrest has added positively to that neighborhood. Let McGinn have his bike, I want to keep the police horses!

  • W.S. mavrick October 5, 2010 (4:45 pm)

    stupid mayor and and his damn bikes, he can spend money on bike lanes and other bike stuff but can’t keep the mounted police, come on mayor mcshwin

  • dsa October 5, 2010 (5:32 pm)

    The mayor’s priorities are wacko.

  • Sage October 5, 2010 (6:06 pm)

    Threatening to stomp over protestors — the horse patrol’s main job, apparently — is a funny way to be an ambassador.

  • Cheryl October 5, 2010 (6:35 pm)

    Stupid mayor. The end.

  • mitch October 5, 2010 (6:58 pm)

    ArborHeightsMom….How many teachers do you think could be added to you children’s school for what it costs to maintain this utterly pointless ‘service’?

    And come on WSB, we know your rely on a cozy relationship with SPD for your increasingly Fox News like ambulance chasing stories, basically the easy stuff, but at least have a modicum of journalistic integrity and give us the numbers before you go into cheerleader mode.

  • LAP October 5, 2010 (7:57 pm)

    Please write to the Mayor and express your concerns and displeasure about this. Send a ‘carbon copy’ to the Chief of Police AND to the City Council – and ask everyone you know to do so, too.

  • AJP October 5, 2010 (8:48 pm)

    I think horse patrols make very good, practical sense. As the article pointed out, they are a more effective presence in a crowd than a police officer on foot, or in a car for that matter. The horse makes them more approachable and friendly to the general public, but a criminal is going to think twice about outrunning a horse. They can go just about anywhere around the city. I really think they should be preserved as a part of the force.

    How are they pointless?

  • abstract October 5, 2010 (9:39 pm)

    The mounted police do a wonderful job and get respect from people who normally wouldn’t respect police. I would be very sad to see them cut. I voted for the mayor, and am now really regretting my decision. I will not be voting for him in the future.

  • LAP October 5, 2010 (9:56 pm)

    @Mitch – the total ‘savings’ would be approximately $110,000.00, as the officer salaries would just move from one column to another since they would be reassigned to patrol cars. Cars….that need to be maintained, repaired – not to mention the cost of fuel. Our ‘green’ mayor wants more polluting cars out there on the road? This Unit is far from pointless – they are a valuable asset and our city needs to do whatever they can to get them off of the budget chopping block!

  • bridge to somewhere October 5, 2010 (10:05 pm)

    @Mitch: I find it interesting that people can be so critical regarding a news site’s coverage, yet, somehow, they still read and somehow even go to the effort of participating in a conversation thereafter.

  • visitor October 5, 2010 (10:21 pm)

    the horsies are nice, but come on! We are losing community centers, cutting way back on tree maintenance (and that’s a safety issues, as tree limbs may fall), losing many social and human services, reducing the neighborhood matching fund, reducing neighborhood service centers, and so much more, in the most drastic cuts I have ever seen in Seattle budget. I don’t think the horsies are top tier priority.

  • Mike October 5, 2010 (10:26 pm)

    @Mitch: As far as I know, the budget for schools is not the same as for law enforcement. So really your point is null.
    As for the use of mounted police, it makes more sense than absolutely useless SPD Segway’s. Guess what… they can’t even go over a curb! LAME use of tax dollars on that one.
    @Sage: I’ve yet to see a horse stomp on a protester. I have, however, seen protesters destroy cars and personal property. Maybe we should get more mounted patrols to help control protesters eh?
    Crowd control with mounted police is far more effective than cops on bicycles or in cars. When you’re double the height of a normal human, you tend to have more impact without using ANY force. I’d say that in itself pays for more mounted police to be added. Less force, more control.

  • EyeLiveInWestSeattle October 5, 2010 (11:26 pm)

    Oh please… why do you really want to “save” the horses? This mode of transportation went away a very long time ago. So, do we keep mistreating these animals for the sake of tradition?
    I have seen one of these horses take a nice dump while a group of teens were listening to an officer talk about his routine with the horse. The best part was listening to the wise cracks from some of the kids. You wouldn’t get that kind of a memory from a car leaking radiator fluid.

  • lenguamor October 6, 2010 (3:42 am)

    McGinn is an idiot. An idiot most of you put in office.
    The voters reap what they sow.

  • sun*e October 6, 2010 (9:30 am)

    @lenguamor – Ditto!

  • AIEC October 6, 2010 (9:45 am)

    @Mitch –

    Teachers are hired and funded by the Seattle School District.

    The Seattle Police Department is funded by the City of Seattle.

    The Seattle School District is a completely seperate legal entity from the City of Seattle.

    The City and the District share only the resources of the Families and Education Levy, with the City controlling the funding for targeted intervention programs.

    Every single officer on the Mounted Patrol, like all non-supervisory SPD officers, is a member of the Seattle Police Guild. Eliminating the Mounted Patrol will not eliminate these officers jobs, it will just lead to thier assignment elsewhere. Very little, if anything, will be saved, and there is absolutely no chance that any money will be flowing from the City’s general budget to the District to hire teachers.

    Do some basic research before you post, unless ignorance is the look you are going for.

  • mitch October 6, 2010 (10:52 am)

    Crowd control? That’s a big problem in Seattle? My impression is that the same people who complain about not enough cops on the street think it’s just fine for them to be playing Roy Rogers in some park preparing for events so rare I can only think of one over the past 30 years. Spend the money on firearms training instead – the PR value of preventing a cop from killing a drunk guy with a 3″ knife would be far greater.

  • AM October 6, 2010 (12:03 pm)

    I have to agree that this is a nostalgic remnant in the SPD. The only area where these mounted police are effective seems to be when they are repressing people’s right to free speech.

    • WSB October 6, 2010 (12:09 pm)

      AM, they are separate entities. The City of Seattle government does not run Seattle Public Schools. The two are not at all related. The suggestion’s been made that maybe the city SHOULD run the schools – but it does not, and the money comes from separate sources. There is no robbing Peter to pay Paul (or vice versa) here, not even possible. Schools’ money comes mostly from the state, and distinct Seattle Public Schools levies; the city, from a variety of sources. – TR

  • mitch October 6, 2010 (1:37 pm)

    WSB, that’s one of the most disingenuous arguments for government waste I believe I’ve heard. When people complain about taxes and government waste, they’re objecting to any and all money wasted in the public sector, which we pay for, regardless of the agency. And when taxes go up because of waste it makes us even less willing to vote for more important things like school levies.

    I believe the reason you’re promoting this ridiculous waste of money is in hopes that the next time you pick up a crime on the scanner you’ll be able to get a little closer to the action when you arrive, sort of like your old days at Fox news, only more bush league.

  • kg October 6, 2010 (1:46 pm)

    Darn those mounted patrols and keeping free speech down. Better turn over some more cars and burn them in protest.

  • Jim P. October 6, 2010 (2:06 pm)

    This is someting definitely worth saving. In a crowd, a mounted officer both stands out and is usually accorded room to move.

    I wasn’t even aware SPD had “Segway” cops. *That* they can axe…other than in malls they are silly and they do not enhance the officer’s presence either…just sort of makes ’em look dorky.

  • M October 6, 2010 (3:33 pm)

    Sorry, but when you compare this to cutting a teacher this is an easy choice. You can’t argue that horses are really an important tool in crowd control – didn’t see one in the WTO fiasco..

  • M October 6, 2010 (3:41 pm)

    frome AIEC:
    “Very little, if anything, will be saved, and there is absolutely no chance that any money will be flowing from the City’s general budget to the District to hire teachers.

    Do some basic research before you post, unless ignorance is the look you are going for.”

    Sorry dude you’re the ignorant one here. Sell the horses, sell the poperty, cut the workers who work on the horses, AND the trucks that haul them around AND all the other stuff. Funds right there.

    Also if the mounted cops are reassigned to regular duties those are jobs that don’t have to require hiring of new cops…

  • STK October 6, 2010 (3:53 pm)

    The SPD doesn’t have “Segway” cops. They *do* have Segway-using traffic enforcement officers.

    The mounted unit is a whopping 4 officers, and at most would be 10. That’s a drop in the bucket, and the money can definitely be better used elsewhere, such as preventing layoffs.

  • Laura October 7, 2010 (9:53 am)

    We had a mounted patrol in Albuquerque that worked every event thta drew a crowd. from the State fair to Gay pride, to the weekend drunk fests downtown in the summer. Police on horses were an excellent way to manage the crowds there. They rode draft crosses and the sheer size of the horses combined with the elevated police presence was a great thing.

    We just dont use the mounted patrol here as effectively. I have rarely seen them here. Why are they not down in Pioneer Square herding drunks every weekend? Either staff the patrol so their work is effective or get rid of it. 4 mounted riders for a town this size is just an affectation for the tourists. Either use them as police which means many more riders and horses or use the money for some other policing process.

  • SJ October 7, 2010 (11:37 am)

    M – You didn’t see the horses used in the WTO fiasco? They were used quite a bit! I worked downtown at the time and saw them. They made quite a difference.

  • josh October 7, 2010 (1:32 pm)

    Horse patrols are not effective or efficient! A horse will not jump fences/bushes/etc to chase a criminal. You might assume they will, but they won’t. An officer on foot will (unless they are out of shape, and that’s a different argument). Police horses just stand in crowds and look pretty. The real estate for a barn, horse maintenance, training, etc all cost too much for a symbolic gesture that rarely gets used and simply does not work. This is a no-brainer – get rid of those expensive/useless horses!

  • mitch October 7, 2010 (3:03 pm)

    Well said Josh. SJ – Yeah, SPD was stellar during WTO.

  • Horsewoman October 11, 2010 (12:42 pm)

    Josh – Really? Horses won’t jump fences and bushes? Somebody better tell all the steeplechasers and the thousands of hunter/jumper/eventer people all over the world this earth shattering news. Geez, just this weekend I competed in a jumping event and guess what? We jumped fences and bushes! Before you show your ignorance, do some research. Any horse can be taught to jump, don’t just assume they won’t.

  • Stephen McKinney October 23, 2010 (9:58 pm)

    Dear Mayor McGinn:

    I am writing to you today as a life long Seattle Native and concerned citizen. Although, I now call Los Angeles my home, my roots in the Pacific Northwest run deep and I am writing to you to ask that you rethink a recent tough decision that you have made that will impact the Seattle Police Department. In these tough economic times, tough choices must be made that affect the city’s social services, but one in particular is very passionate to me and I hope that you are listening to the voices of your constituents.

    The Seattle Police Department was founded in 1886 by your Mounted Patrol Unit. These men and women have served the Seattle community proudly for almost 125 years and are more than just a P.R. arm of the force. During protests and large gathering’s, it is the Mounted Patrol Unit that can mobilize and assist in breaking up a crowd. These Officers have the ability to patrol parks, alleys and other parts of town that are not accessible by car. The Officer’s who work these streets are responsible for dozens of revenue generating citations and arrests, everything from purse snatching’s to drug arrests. Because they can patrol places like Westlake Park, Occidental Park and the Seattle Center they play a key role in identifying “suspicious” packages and therefore, are a vital force in protecting the city from the threat of terrorism. The Officer’s who have become family to these magnificent animals are also vital ambassadors of the force, in that the average person on the street is much more likely to step up and strike up a conversation with a Mounted Police Officer than he or she is to a “Beat Cop” and an Officer riding around in a patrol car, has much less opportunity to interact with the citizens or tourists. These interactions are important in that it helps build trust between citizens and law enforcement and strong partnerships between the people and our Peace Officers helps to build a strong community. In addition, these Officers and their four legged partners add a colorful flare of tradition to a vibrant and beautiful city and to end this tradition that dates back to a time before the great Seattle Fire is a sad crime in and of itself. Incidentally, I’m sure that the Seattle Mounted Patrol Unit played a key role in restoring order in this City after that tragic event as well.

    In closing, I say that I do not envy you for the choices that you have to make in the coming weeks and months. These are tough times and no matter where you must make cuts, you are likely to draw resistance. I do hope however that you will think carefully about the long term impact that those choices will have on this city. Once the Mounted Patrol Unit is terminated, it will likely be a program that will not be reinstated again when times get better and that is sad when you consider that almost every major city in this country has a program similar to this. What this tells me that a Mounted Patrol Unit is a vital part of law enforcement that should be preserved. Although, I am no longer a registered voter in King County, I do still have scores of friends and family in Seattle who are. I will continue to speak out on this issue to them and will encourage those with whom I communicate to support the candidates running for public office who support our men and women in uniform, for without them, Democracy in this Country as we know it and cherish it will end. Above all, I hope that although a native of New York, you recognize the importance of preserving the tradition and heritage of the City you now call home.

    Respectfully Yours,
    Stephen McKinney,
    Los Angeles, California

  • Epona November 7, 2010 (10:10 am)

    I think one of the issues here is the general public’s ignorance on horse behavior and psychology. A horse will step on another living thing ONLY if there is nowhere else for it’s foot to fall. Horses can and will jump and clear higher barriers than a human officer. But the greatest asset they have to offer the police force is their ability to identify a leader. A police horse is trained to use this, by picking the main ring leader out of a crowd they can then, like a cutting horse, separate the person from the crowd. The size and speed to react is an intimidating force which can usually subdue an instigator faster and with fewer injuries to citizen and officer.
    I think the real problem is the public is so separated from horses they don’t understand, like they use to, how intelligent and capable this animals are. They can accomplish more than any soul biped.

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