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Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Mounted Police Need Leg-Up

Is Philly Horse Shy?

By Richard Carreño

Philadelphia is back in the saddle again. Well, maybe.

To his credit, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey says he wants revive the Police Department's moribund mounted unit. But in the next breath he pulls up the reins, sits deep in the saddle, and, in so many words, says, 'Whoa, Nelly, not so fast!'

First, the new horse unit -- the old one was put down by former Mayor John F. Street in 2005 in one of his classic hissy fits over expenses -- wouldn't be tacked up until year's end, at best. The problem (make that problems), according to Ramsey, are the acquistion of mounts, stabling, and -- hark, shades of Street -- funding.

Actually, maintaining the mounted unit has never been about money.

It was about Street being a hippophobe. (No, not hippos,horses). The former mayor was impatient with anything which didn't tick or have a 'send' button. Remember how the techie mayor famously waited in line for interminable hours to buy an IPhone? You get the idea.

To Street, horses, even as in Philadelphia's historic mounted unit, were -- yeech! -- just too low tech.

When it came to mobility, to Street anything less than a super-sized SUV was just slumming. Unless, it was mechanical, of course, like his pet bike. Street also loved Sedway Human Transporters. (Let's just say that this guy was complicated).

If disbanding the mounted unit -- ironically, once one the largest in the country -- was never really about money, it wasn't about effective policing, either. Street portrayed Philly's unit of 17 horses and 20 troopers as a relic of the past. Certainly, not in keeping with IPhones, Blackberries, pencil sharperners and other gadgets he stuffed into his pockets.

Street, himself an avid cyclist, preferred cops on bikes. Intimidating? Hardly. Frankly, today's bike-mounted cop is more Constable Plod in a bucolic Agatha Christie who-done-it? than big-city crime fighter. More Tour de France, than tour de force. Training wheels, anyone?

Pulling the budget plug resulted in Philadelphia being today the only city in the top five in the United States without a mounted police troop.

Curiously, almost no one wanted to drop the troop.

South Street interests said the mounted unit was just right for controlling Mardi Gras crowds.

City Councilman Frank DiCicco responded, 'Horses have proven vital in crowd control situations for years, particularly in our district.'

Others ascribed more nafarious, politically-charged reasons. Street was thinking of doing a development deal where the horses were stabled in Krewtown Road, in the Northeast, some said. Or, maybe Street was playing budget politics, and the troop just got squeezed in the middle, another story went.

Thankfully, Ramsey -- and, no doubt, with Mayor Michael Nutter's blessing -- wants to put the city back in step -- make that 'gait' -- with the rest of the country. (Like Boston, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco -- you name it).

Ramsey understands there's good reason to deploy a mounted troop. Horse units are picturesque and attract lots of 'ohs' and 'ahs' from passers-by, locals and tourists alike. What's a parade without horses? Ceremony? Horses put the dash in the flash. (Just check out the daily Horse Guard trooping in London). That, of course, is just one plus side. Good police PR.

More important is the policing side -- crowd control. While a horse might be cute, 1,000 pounds of massive horseflesh also means business. A mounted trooper five feet above street level, a roving watchtower, instills respect and discipline. Police like to say that one mounted cop equals 10 on the foot beat.

Ramsey shouldn't be waylaid at the pass. Re-establishing the mounted troop -- well before 2009 -- is not as daunting as he portrays the task.

Acquiring mounts could be one of the easiest parts.

Ramsey is a newcomer to Philly, so he might not know that neighboring Chester County is premier horse country. Lots of horse-owners I suspect would be willing to donate to the cause. Did I hear tax deduction? An ad in a paper that circulates in the Unionville/Kennett Square areas ought to do the trick.

As for stabling, facilities already exist in Fairmount Park. Commissioner, check it out.

Money? The mounted troop's budget, in its last year, was $400,000, according to newspaper reports. Surely, out of a total $500 million annual police budget less than one-half million can be found. Besides, imagine the savings. A horse costs about a fifth what a cruiser does. And gas consumption? At $4 plus a gallon (and rising) for fuel, how much cheaper can you get than $10, the daily cost for hay and grain per horse?

(This article first appeared in the Weekly Press (http://www.weeklypress.com/) in a slightly different form).