NHPD plans to expand equine unit

The New Haven Police Department’s newest recruit clearly isn’t your typical officer: He doesn’t wear a uniform, sports a wild mane of hair, and weighs close to a ton. And city leaders are more than thrilled to have him.

Yesterday morning, at a ceremony on the New Haven Green, city and police department officials welcomed “Marshmallow,” a nine-year-old Percheron Cross, to the squad’s Mounted Unit and kicked off a fundraising campaign designed to expand that division. The city, in partnership with locally headquartered New Alliance Bank — which will serve as depository for the campaign — hopes to raise funds for purchasing new horses, upgrading equipment, and training officers.

At the event, New Haven Chief of Police Francisco Ortiz, Assistant Chief of Police Stephanie Redding and Chief Administrative Officer John Buturla all emphasized the importance of the Mounted Unit for community policing.

“Having mounted police allows us to get closer to the people we serve,” Buturla said. “Not only are they effective in crowd control and visibility, they also allow police officers to interact with the community.”

Officer Richard LaRock, who was accompanied by his horse Valence, also said the Mounted Unit gives the police department a more visible presence in the city.

“You might not see a police officer walking down the street,” he said. “But you’re not going to miss an officer on a horse.”

Buturla said the donation of Marshmallow by a local horse rescue organization provided the immediate impetus for the new fundraising campaign. After consulting with Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and reviewing the structure of the police department, Buturla and the city government decided to build on the donation by expanding the Mounted Unit.

New Haven’s decision to augment its mounted police force continues a national trend in which major cities, including New York and Boston, have spent money to bolster their mounted squads. According to NHPD estimates, one mounted officer can take the place of 10 officers on foot patrol, making horses a useful tool for crowd control and crime deterrence. The presence of a mounted unit can also provide significant community relations benefits, officials said.

“These officers are very visible and very approachable—they’re ambassadors to the city,” Redding, a former mounted officer, said. “It definitely takes away some of the angst of getting a traffic ticket when you see a horse. It usually puts everyone in a better mood.”

Though all city officials present at the ceremony seemed to agree that having more mounted officers is a good thing, they also conceded that augmenting the unit will not be easy — or cheap.

“We are concerned with costs,” city spokeswoman Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo said. “The city pays for the upkeep of the stables and the training, and some of the other expenses.”

Because the Mounted Unit currently operates on a limited budget, it obtains its animals through donations, and not through direct purchases. The donated horses have usually not been trained specifically for police work, and as a result, oftentimes do not measure up to the demands of city life.

“Lots of horses we get we have to give back,” Redding said. “We spend a lot of energy and money trying to train them, and then we bring them downtown and they don’t work out because they’re afraid of traffic or noise. It’s a waste.”

Occasionally, a horse that doesn’t pan out can mean more than lost money for the police department.

“When I brought one of the horses I trained into the street, the first thing he did was throw me off and break my leg,” Redding said.

Still, despite these challenges, Ortiz said he is committed to increasing the numbers of horses and trained officers.

“It’s quite majestic to see an officer on a horse,” he said. “I envision a horse being in every district sometime soon if we can get enough support to make that happen.”

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