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Philadelphia Revives Mounted Police Program

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Philadelphia Revives Mounted Police Program

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Philadelphia Revives Mounted Police Program

Philadelphia Revives Mounted Police Program

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The Philadelphia police department's newest recruits are cooling their heels on a farm in bucolic Ambler, Pa. The department recently acquired 11 horses, and started training officers to use them in crowd-control and related operations. That runs counter to thinking at other departments around the country, which have recently closed their equestrian units in a cost-cutting move.

STEVE INSKEEP, host: Many American cities no longer have cops on horseback. They eliminated the mounted units to save money. But the Philadelphia Police Department has been reviving its mounted police. The police commissioner says the horses provide an important policing tool. NPR's Joel Rose explains.

JOEL ROSE: In a leafy corner of a northeast Philadelphia park, a police trainer is putting the department's newest recruits through their paces, literally.

MARK ROBINSON: Forward ho. Good. Maintain leg position, keep the horse going, keep your butt in that saddle.

ROSE: A half-dozen horses canter and trot in circles around a dirt field. To be fair, trainer Mark Robinson says these exercises are as much for the riders as their mounts.

ROBINSON: They're going to learn to use their legs today. They're going to move in and out of objects. Everything we do here in the ring will in somehow, some way, shape or form be applied on the street.

ROSE: The Philadelphia mounted unit is starting out with the basics because it has to. In 2004, the department disbanded the unit, including about 30 horses and riders, to save money. Lieutenant Daniel McCann was in charge of the mounted unit back then. And he's happy to be back in the saddle again.

DANIEL MCCANN: Nobody has, you know, come up and pet my police car. But people are just drawn to horses like magnets.

ROSE: Everyone I spoke to for this story repeated some version of that quote. But public relations is only part of the mounted unit's value. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey saw that first-hand back when he was a cop in Chicago.

CHARLES RAMSEY: I've not seen anything clear a street as quickly as a horse can. So for crowd control, they're incredibly effective. And being able to clear the street without clashes between the police and the people in the street, horses can do all that.

ROSE: Ramsey re-started the mounted unit in Washington, D.C. when he was police chief there. And now he's doing the same in Philadelphia. But in other cities, the mounted unit is something of a vanishing breed.

MITCHEL ROTH: There were close to 300 full-time horse-mounted units in the United States back in the '80s and into the 1990s. And today there's probably less than a hundred.

ROSE: Mitchel Roth is a professor at Sam Houston State University. He's written about the history of horses in law enforcement.

ROTH: Whenever there's a budget crisis, the first priority of a police department is to save jobs. You know, if that means getting rid of horses to save some jobs, they're going to do that.

ROSE: That's what happened in Boston, Tulsa and San Diego, which disbanded their mounted units after the economic downturn. So did Charleston, South Carolina, much to the dismay of Alice Forshaw, who worked as the department's groom for almost 20 years.

ALICE FORSHAW: That made me sick. It really did. I think it was a mistake. There's a lot of people in Charleston that loved that horse patrol unit.

ROSE: But Forshaw admits that horses aren't cheap. And she should know. Forshaw got to keep Napoleon, one of Charleston's retired police horses. But she too had to give him away when the expenses started to add up.

FORSHAW: You know, you've got a blacksmith coming in that charges quite a bit. You've got the vet coming in. Horses have to have shots twice a year. And I mean these things aren't cheap.


ROSE: In Philadelphia, the mounted unit is projected to cost about half a million dollars a year. A local police foundation is picking up the bill for the first two years. The unit is still looking for a permanent home, since its former barn was turned into storage. For now, it's leasing space at a private stable about 13 miles from police headquarters. Not that Lt. McCann is complaining.

MCCANN: I'm a happy camper. I walk in the barn every day, I take a big whiff, and I say smells like home.

ROSE: McCann says a handful of horses and riders are ready for crowd-control assignments now. He hopes to have the unit galloping at full strength in two years.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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