June 27--In the past two years, mounted police units from Boston to San Diego have gone the way of the Pony Express, the victims of tight budgets and shifting law-enforcement priorities.
But in Seattle, where municipal belt-tightening has become a fact of life, the Police Department's 100-year-old mounted patrol unit has staved off elimination through an intensive fundraising campaign and a generous corporate donation.
Last month, Seattle-based logistics and freight company Expeditors International donated $135,000 to the mounted unit, filling a funding gap not covered by the Seattle Police Foundation, said Peter Rose, CEO of Expeditors International and a Seattle Police Foundation Board member. The donation, coupled with contributions from the foundation, means that the Seattle Police Mounted Patrol unit will continue to ride for at least three more years despite no official funding from the city.
Rose said the horseback police unit is threatened during a budget squeeze because few people are aware of the function of the unit. That's why Expeditors stepped in.
"I don't think that people are aware of what it is [the mounted patrol] does," said Rose. "They're great for PR. They're great for crowd control, and they're a great deterrent for crime. Not many people are going to mess with a 2,000-pound horse."
The Seattle mounted patrol found itself on the chopping block late last year when Mayor Mike McGinn proposed to eliminate the unit to help plug the city's $67 million budget hole. But the Seattle Police Foundation, a nonprofit that supports public-safety initiatives, stepped in and pledged to finance the unit until 2014.
The foundation partnered with the Seattle Hotel Association, a nonprofit organization of 58 hotels in Seattle, to secure funding for two years and launched a public campaign to raise funding for a third year.
To date, the Seattle Police Foundation has raised $176,000, said Renee Hopkins, Seattle Police Foundation president and CEO.
The Seattle Police Mounted Patrol, which consists of seven police horses, a sergeant, five police officers and a civilian laborer, costs about $165,000 a year to maintain, said Hopkins. The cost covers the housing, veterinary care, and feed for the horses.
The officers' salaries come out of the city's general fund.
"Horses are seen as a luxury, not a necessity," said police Sgt. Grant Ballingham, who has been with the mounted unit for six years.
Seattle's patrol unit, which is on the smaller side of mounted units, has seven horses: Jet, Charlie, Tiger, Cody, Blaze, Harvest and Justice. The horses are kept at stables at Westcrest Park in West Seattle.
From Wednesday through Saturday, two to four of the officers patrol on horseback in the downtown area. They perform basic police functions on horseback, which include maintaining the peace, enforcing laws, clearing congested areas, providing a visible police presence and fostering community dialogue, Ballingham said.
The mounted patrol is most effective in helping control large gatherings of people, Ballingham said..
"An officer on a horse is as effective as 10 officers on foot," said Ballingham. "When it comes to crowd control, you can't beat them. If we ever get into a riot situation and need tactical units to be deployed, the mounted patrol is ready."
In March, the mounted patrol monitored an anti-police protest of about 60 to 70 anarchists organized for "International Day Against Police Brutality" that began in downtown Seattle and moved on to Capitol Hill.
Beyond crowd control, Ballingham said that the mounted patrol also aides in community building, more so than other police units.
"We have people coming up to pet the horses and talk to us," Ballingham said. "They don't always do that with officers on foot."
Budget cuts have forced many cities to disband mounted police units. In the past two years, Boston, San Diego, Clarksville, Tenn., and Tulsa, Okla. have eliminated horse units. Police in the nation's three largest cities -- Los Angeles, New York and Chicago -- still have horse patrols.
While Seattle's mounted patrol is safe for the time being, Hopkins says that after the three-year donations dry up, the future of the equestrian unit will be open to debate. Because other city services overshadow the mounted patrol, the unit is always in danger of cuts.
"It's not a huge ticket item on the budget," she said.
Hopkins hopes that propping up the mounted patrol in the current budget crunch will actually save the city money in the long term. She pointed to Philadelphia, which disbanded its mounted patrol unit in 2004, but announced it would reinstate the unit if it can raise $2 million.
"We can't express enough thanks to Peter Rose for continuing the unit," said Ballingham. "We might name our next horse after him."
Amy Harris: 206-464-2212 or email@example.com