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Winter 1994
City Journal Winter 1994.
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  I deas and Observations

The Ten-Foot-Tall Officer
Susan Vigilante
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Officer Patrice Turner and her partner were out on their regular morning patrol in the mid-forties around Eighth Avenue. This part of the city is almost never what anyone would call quiet, and at 8:00 A.M. the streets were still thronged with the usual nightmarish rush-hour traffic. But for Turner and her partner at least the morning had been routine: a few tickets to write, chats with local storeowners, keeping a weather eye for pickpockets.

They were on the northwest corner of 46th and Eighth when Turner saw two men in suits racing towards her, yelling at the top of their lungs. “Stop that guy! The one in the blue suit! With the briefcase!”

A man in a blue suit in midtown, at rush hour. Not exactly a unique description easy to pick out in a crowd. But from Turner’s vantage point astride her partner—a beautiful, 15.2-hand thoroughbred named Miller—she spotted him easily enough, running for all he was worth. As he rounded the corner and headed east on 45th Street, she and Miller were dodging Eighth’s four lanes of traffic, treating motorists to what some of them must have thought was a rerun of “McCloud,” and trying very hard not to break their own necks. By the time they picked their way through the gridlock and turned cast on 45th, Miller was in full canter, going against the oncoming traffic.

The man in the blue suit was fast—in a two-legged sort of way. But although most New Yorkers have never seen them do it, police horses can really run. It is a very impressive sight, all the more so for its rarity. Even a thoroughbred on the stretch at Belmont does not look quite so urgent, because a thoroughbred on a track is supposed to be running. If you ever see a mounted chase through Manhattan traffic, you may decide racing is a light matter by comparison.

As Turner closed in, the suspect, still running, made his biggest mistake. He glanced back over his shoulder.

Now, if you are like most New Yorkers, you have probably wondered on occasion whether crooks are sufficiently afraid of female cops. I mean really afraid—afraid enough to make an impression, or evoke a little cooperation. Turner and her partner clearly made an impression. Forty-fifth Street is not a dead end, but when the thief saw 1,200 pounds of horseflesh closing in on him at a near gallop, his eyes widened, and he froze in sheer terror. He dropped the briefcase, turned around slowly, and, without a word from Turner, reached up and put his hands behind his head and waited meekly for the two-footed officer to arrest him. Talk about good cop, bad cop. (The briefcase, incidentally, was stolen from a guest at the nearby Marriott Hotel. It contained some $20,000 in cash and travelers checks.)

The Mounted Unit of the New York City Police Department is surprisingly small given how powerful an impression it makes on the cityscape. Some 150 officers of all ranks, including two captains, six lieutenants, and twelve sergeants make up the roll. On one wet, chilly afternoon recently I visited them in their home at the police stables on 42nd Street between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues.

The mounted command is housed in a plain, low square building, a dispiriting utilitarian affair that one is not at all surprised to learn once housed some offices of New York Telephone. Even today the only exterior decor is the gray and blue paint covering the walls in neat, regimental stripes.

The offices on the second floor are simple. A handful of small private offices reserved for officers of rank surround a larger common room for everyone else. But despite the simplicity and the NYNEX architecture, the panache of the unit is everywhere apparent; outside a gold-shield homicide squad you probably will not find an NYPD unit with more esprit de corps, a deeper sense of its own history, or greater pride in its special calling.

The unit’s founding members were mostly Civil War cavalry officers. To the civilian eye their uniform may simply seem like a functional adaptation of NYPD blues, but in fact it is a slightly modernized Civil War cavalry uniform. And as absolutely every mounted officer you ever meet will tell you, the saddle the unit uses is a “McClellan Saddle,” named after, and perhaps designed by, the father of the Army of the Potomac, who, however much trouble he had dealing with Robert E. Lee, by all accounts cut a magnificent figure in the saddle.

The unit’s sense of pride is evident as well in the military shine of the highly polished riding boots on nearly every officer, and in the painted portraits of memorable horses, including some true equine heroes, on the walls. An entire room is devoted to mounted police history. Old photographs, antique mounted uniforms from the NYPD and around the world, and assorted memorabilia are displayed in glass cases; framed newspaper articles and more pictures line the walls.

Officer Turner takes me downstairs to see the stables. In civilian life Turner was a hairdresser. She took the NYPD civil-service exam on a lark because a friend was taking it; but she comes, like so many cops, from a cop—or, in her case, cop and fireman—family. Her grandfather was NYPD, her father and husband firefighters, and her brother, an NYPD recruit, will inherit their grandfather’s shield when he reports for duty this winter.

Like the offices, the stables are simple: concrete floors, wooden stalls, the good old stable scents of hay and horseflesh banishing for a happy moment all thought of the city outside. The name of each of the thirty horses stabled here is posted on its stall. When I remarked on one called, unusually I thought, “Levine,” Officer Turner explained that he was named after a retired officer. Roughly another hundred horses are stabled in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.

Police horses work hard for a living, spending long hours on patrol under conditions of noise and stress that would render most horses unreliable, balky, or dangerous. They earn a great deal of respect and affection from their officers in return. A mounted officer can tell you the name of every horse he ever worked with, what the animal was like, and what kind of a team they made. When the time comes for a horse to retire from active duty he is sent to “horse heaven,” a farm in Orange County, to spend his remaining days being fed and groomed and trotting about with the other retirees. An enviable afterlife.

Once upon a time the city purchased nearly all the horses. But although the unit is remarkably effective on patrol and is indispensable for certain tasks, it has been a favorite budget-cutting target for years, misunderstood by green-eyeshade types who often seem to assume the mounties are no more than a cosmetic adornment, like military bands. To keep the unit up to full strength, the NYPD has for many years relied on donors who give the unit the $2,000 average purchase price of a suitable animal or even donate horses of their own. Donors do not go unacknowledged: a horse donated by the Milton Bradley Corporation was christened “Checkers”; another from the folks at Madison Square Garden was dubbed “Arena.” Broadway and film star Bernadette Peters gave two, now known as “Peters” and “BP.” Officer Turner’s Miller was named after his donor, too.

Not just any horse will be accepted. The animals are chosen for size, temperament, and “uniformity of appearance.” They tend to be bays, dark browns with black markings (mane, tail, etc.), and they are geldings. There are also a few chestnuts; there have been grays but none at present. Through the donor program the unit has also boasted the occasional thoroughbred and even one Appaloosa. Horses must be at least 15 hands high, sound of wind and limb, and free from the equine vices of biting and kicking. Once accepted, a horse is sent out on probationary patrol. If he can deal with the traffic and the general mayhem of the city, he is given a name and formally accepted by the unit.

Officers for the Mounted Unit are recruited from the other branches of the police force. From roughly 150 to 200 applicants per year, some 15 or 20 are finally selected to train as mounted officers. Training can last from ten weeks to several months, depending on how urgent the need for new officers is. There are two training sites, one in Brooklyn at Coney Island, and one in the Bronx at Pelham Bay Park.

Most candidates are not riders when they first come to the unit. The officers of the Remount Unit, as the training facilities are called, teach the candidates everything they ever wanted to know about horses and then some, including a lot about the care and feeding of their future partners. But for most of the course, candidates spend eight hours a day walking and trotting, developing a good seat, and learning how to control the horse under the adverse conditions of city streets. As one auxiliary mounted officer explained, “Walk, trot, and canter” (the simple skills that traditionally separate a journeyman rider from a raw beginner) “are not what we are looking for. What matters is being able to hold your seat and keep horse and bystanders safe in a real emergency.”

During her training, Officer Turner once managed to get herself hurled into a wall headfirst, straining every ligament in her neck and seriously injuring her shoulder (the horse was unharmed). By the afternoon session she was back in the saddle, practicing keeping her knees in, her heels down, her shoulders back, and all the other painstakingly acquired body habits that go into English riding.

Most people, especially city folk, are either intimidated by horses or impressed by them. Much of the unit’s usefulness flows naturally from this fact. Besides leading parades and posing for tourists, mounted officers spend a lot of time doing crowd control for demonstrations and parades. Crowd control is mostly a matter of letting the crowd know someone is in control, and a line of mounted officers is very visible. If a mounted officer tells you to move back, you have to take into account not only whether you want to give this nice officer a hard time, but whether you really want to invade the personal space of his perhaps less predictable and tolerant four-footed partner.

But crowds and parades are only part of the job. The bulk of the Mounted Unit’s work is far less glamorous or visible, and far more useful to the city on a day-to-day basis. What the Mounted Unit does is virtually a textbook example of what is now called community policing.

Community policing encourages police to build a relationship with citizens. The theory is that better communications will encourage trust in police. This in turn will make it easier for police to maintain order and to enlist the help of community members when they need it. An officer on a horse is an attraction, almost an invitation to conversation (at least when they are standing still and not chasing you crosstown on 45th Street). “If a person has a choice between approaching an officer in a radio car and a mounted officer,” one of the unit’s lieutenants told me, “nine out of ten times he’ll pick the mounted officer.”

Officer Turner, who spent several years as a radio-car officer before coming to the Mounted Unit, concedes, “There’s no question that the officers in radio cars have the most dangerous, most stressful job on the force,” but for a citizen who wants to talk to a cop, that horse is a great conversation starter even if the conversation starts, as Turner says it occasionally does, on so unpromising a note as “Is that a horse?”

Community policing aims at creating a perception of security. The more people believe the streets are safe, the more people will use them and the safer streets will become. One key to building this feeling of safety is to make police more visible.

No cop is more visible than a mounted officer. One of their high-visibility techniques, called “omnipresence” or, more colloquially, “leapfrogging,” was of particular value during the Democratic Convention last year. Mounted officers met the delegates at their hotel each morning. Then as the delegates headed for the Javits Center, a few officers trotted around the block and went on ahead to another vantage point. By the time the delegates passed them, the other cops had done the same thing—disappearing around a corner only to reappear at another corner further along the delegates’ route. At no time were the delegates—who, remember, were not New Yorkers and must have had the typical out-of-towner’s fears about the city—out of sight of the police. Five or six police officers created the impression of a mounted troop blanketing the delegates’ route.

Not only can a mounted officer be seen for blocks, he can see for blocks. He can spot the average street crime while it is still developing: a pickpocket selecting his mark, a known burglar sizing up a storefront, an angry confrontation threatening to escalate into something more serious. And he can get to the crime in time to stop it. How many patrol cars can run up and down staircases, dodge through Shubert Alley in record time, or tear between lanes of traffic?

Their ability to perform in unusual places stood them in good stead in 1986 when the New York Mets won the World Series in seven games against the Boston Red Sox. The sixth game was a heartstopper, with the Mets coming back to win in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two strikes already in the book. That drama of the sixth game all but guaranteed that the seventh game crowd would be even more feverish and perhaps even worse-behaved than the crowd that swarmed onto the field and tore up the turf at Shea after the Mets won the National League pennant less than two weeks before. The near-riot and the severe damage to the field not only wounded the city’s image, it also cost a small fortune to repair. The turf still had not fully healed.

The Mets and the NYPD made it a top priority to ensure there would be no repeat of that incident. For game seven, the Mounted Unit was there in strength. During the game, most fans could see only the two mounted officers stationed near each dugout, high-stepping back and forth to make themselves as visible and intimidating, albeit also decorative, as possible. But the moment Boston made its last out in the 8-5 game, the great rear gates of the stadium between the bull pens swung open and dozens of mounted officers cantered onto the field, looking for all the world like their cavalry forbears mounting a charge under Sheridan or Custer. When the dust settled, the urban cavalry had formed an unbreachable, intimidating, and thrillingly beautiful V-shaped line from home plate to the left- and right-field foul poles. The whole thing was done in seconds. Not a single fan invaded the field.

It was a victory celebrated with style. McClellan would have been proud.

 

 


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