Amid Tight Budgets, Mounted Police Face Hurdles

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Officer Marc Melanson cares for horses at the Palm Springs Mounted Unit, which he founded. i i

hide captionOfficer Marc Melanson cares for horses at the Palm Springs Mounted Unit, which he founded.

Amy Standen for NPR
Officer Marc Melanson cares for horses at the Palm Springs Mounted Unit, which he founded.

Officer Marc Melanson cares for horses at the Palm Springs Mounted Unit, which he founded.

Amy Standen for NPR

The down economy has another casualty: Police officers on horseback. San Diego; Boston; Tulsa, Okla.; and Westchester, N.Y., have all lost mounted units in the past year or two.

Elsewhere, officers have to make the case that horses still have a role to play in law enforcement.

The story of cops on horseback in Palm Springs, Calif., started in the 1980s, during what Sgt. Marc Melanson calls "some very problematic spring breaks."

"We were having all kinds of crowd-control issues: teenagers, college kids, gangs and everything else tearing up the city, costing us pretty close to half a million dollars for the 10-day period of spring break," Melanson says.

Melanson says that of all the tools in the police officer's toolbox, nothing beats horses. He says they are perfect for crowd control because you never really know whether one is going to step on your foot or not.

"People have a natural inclination to be scared of horses," he says. "Any one of our horses weighs around 1,200 pounds ... It wouldn't be comfortable at all."

And horses are good PR, too.

"The horse kind of bridges gaps, it brings people together," Melanson says. "It makes us what we like to call goodwill ambassadors. We're the good guys ... for a change."

This unit consists of four police horses living in a stable on the outskirts of town. Melanson founded the program in 1985. But in 1988, voters elected Sonny Bono as mayor. In an effort to clean up the town, Bono banned G-strings, putting a damper on the annual tradition of women in thongs riding around town on their motorcycles. Spring-breakers started heading to Cancun and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico instead.

These days, Melanson's horses come out a few times a month for street fairs, parades or other events. Increasingly, Melanson finds himself having to fight for them.

"A lot of agencies view the horse unit as somewhat fluff," Melanson says. "They say, 'Oh it's a valuable tool, but it's not a necessary tool.' "

That's the problem with mounted units. It's easy to forget what they are good for until something happens — something that really gets people out onto the streets.

Fred Parker, president of the Florida-based Mounted Police Training Systems, is an advocate for cops on horseback.

"If you put the horses in there, let me tell you, people are going to be surprised," Parker says. "It'll calm people down; it really does."

But city governments don't always see it Parker's way. State and local budgets are too tight to carry programs people don't think are necessary. Parker says that three years ago there were about 200 mounted units in the country. Now, he counts fewer than 100.

"You know, usually when they have a roundtable discussion in the police department, they say, 'You know, we got to cut so many millions. You know, where we going to get this money?' The first on the list is usually the mounted unit," Parker says.

In Palm Springs, as in many other areas, the unit is no longer funded by the city. It costs about $14,000 a year to run the program — $5,000 just on hay. Melanson and others raise the money themselves.

"We had a Western dance during the rodeo ... and basically [called] up some of our past donors," Melanson says.

But this year, those efforts fell short. So Melanson has been going on TV, asking the community for donations. He has raised enough to keep the unit running for one more year. If the spring-breakers come back, they will be ready.

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