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Conn. mounted police unit threatened by cuts

The four-horse, four-officer unit first started in 1985

By Steven Goode
The Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — The police department's Mounted Patrol Unit is seeking private donations as it faces a budget deficit this fiscal year and the strong possibility of being dismantled in June.

The four-horse, four-officer unit, first started in 1985 by Police Chief Bernard Sullivan, was disbanded in 2000, a victim of budget cuts. It was revived in 2008 by Chief Daryl K. Roberts, but once again the mounted patrol  one of only two left in the state, along with Bridgeport's  could be headed out to pasture because of a lack of funds.

"It's absolutely a luxury we can't afford," said city council President Shawn Wooden. "We're making difficult choices in a difficult fiscal environment."

The council targeted the unit last spring, when it reduced the police department's requested budget increase and suggested that the department could bridge the gap in part by discontinuing the unit.

But the department came back to the council in late summer, asking for permission to raise funds privately to continue the mounted unit. The council granted the request, and the unit has been reaching out for help ever since, posting fliers at downtown businesses and with neighborhood and civic groups.

Sgt. David Marinelli, the unit's administrative sergeant, said they have raised about $2,000 in the past four months, but will need another $7,000 to $10,000 just to get to June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

"That's just to feed and shoe" the horses, Marinelli said. "That doesn't count equipment for the horses."

Officers in the unit say they provide a valuable service to the department and the city, through community outreach, visiting schools, participating in toy drives and being more approachable than officers in cruisers.

The mounted officers also patrol downtown when the bars and restaurants are closing on weekends, parking lots at concerts and the city's parks, and help handle crowd control when necessary.

"We're very effective at clearing crowds," said Officer Debbie Scates. "When we close the bars, people clear the streets in a more organized, efficient manner."

In the past year, the unit has also participated in numerous directed patrols and motor vehicle stops, responded to breach of peace, suspicious persons, trespassing, loitering and threatening complaints and secured crime scenes, according to Marinelli.

Members of the unit, whose horses are named after city officers who have died in the line of duty, say they are also able to gain intelligence from people who feel comfortable talking to them on a horse but who would never approach a cruiser.

"It's not just about riding in parades," Marinelli said.

As far as Wooden is concerned, the unit is a public relations tool.

"The mounted patrol's purpose is to promote the city's image," he said. "While that's important, we felt that the four officers could be redeployed to front-line crime reduction efforts."

Mike Zaleski, executive director for the Hartford Business Improvement District, said that his organization is working to spread the word about the unit's need for financial help from the private sector.

"We believe the mounted unit provides an invaluable service to downtown and the city as a whole," Zaleski said. "Is it a luxury? It's easy to call it that, but I'd call it an element of community policing that is beneficial to the citizenry."

Steve Abrams, owner of Max Downtown, said that he was happy to contribute to the campaign and would host a fundraiser if asked.

"They are extremely supportive of us. When we call, they come running," Abrams said. "But more importantly, the mounted police makes a statement that the Hartford Police Department is out in force."

Hartford Police Chief James Rovella said he was thankful that the business community was stepping forward to help support the unit.

Rovella and Bridgeport Police Chief Joseph Gaudett said that the mounted units are ambassadors for their departments and their cities and that children and residents are drawn to them.

"When the department receives calls from the community asking for police services as at a community event, the first thing they always ask for are the horses," Gaudett said.

Rovella, who declined to place blame for the unit's predicament, said that it was making a transition from ambassadorship to operational to remain viable and to fit in with the department's community policing initiative.

"We've changed the complexion of what they do," he said, adding that public relations is about one-quarter of what the unit does now, and that percentage is declining. "They have to fit into our plan."

Members of the unit said the city will be throwing away money spent on years of training for both the officers and the horses if it disbands the unit, as well as the cost of two trucks, two horse trailers, four saddles and other riding equipment.

"It takes a year to be proficient on the streets," said Scates, who joined the department to ride in the mounted unit just before it was shut down in 2000. When it was revived, Scates, who became a detective with vice and narcotics, jumped at the opportunity.

"I said, 'Take the gold shield back, I'm gone,'" Scates said.

Much like what the unit is attempting to do now, the original mounted patrol was born of a public-private partnership in the early 1980s. Sullivan, who retired as chief in 1989, said that the corporate community initiated the idea for a mounted patrol and showed its support financially and with an advertising campaign called "Hot to Trot."

Corporations, businesses and neighborhood groups ponied up money to pay for the stables, trucks and trailers. Sullivan estimated that the start-up costs were about $1.5 million.

"We got a lot of help from the corporate community and neighborhood people writing $5, $10, $20 checks," Sullivan said. "It was a real nice effort."

In return, Sullivan said, city leaders agreed to fund the cost of running the unit, which at the time had 12 officers and horses who patrolled the city's parks and downtown in teams.

"The idea was to make the parks safer. People didn't want to go in some of the parks, even in the daytime," Sullivan said. "It may seem like a luxury, but it's important."

The city council's cut to the department's requested increase resulted in a $25,000 reduction to the unit's line item for "all other supplies," which includes funding for food, shavings and hay, according to Thomas Bowley, fiscal manager for the police department.

The unit offset the cut to that line item by reducing its budget for veterinary and farrier expenses, but it still needs to raise money to completely close the gap.

But Bowley said that costs  especially salaries  will continue to increase, making the unit unsustainable if the city council continues to reduce the department's budget requests.

"If they cut our budget again, I think we will have no choice but to disband the unit," he said. "The cost of the horses is what they're not funding."

Wooden pointed out that the council's suggestions on where savings might be achieved are only "advisory," but added that the mounted unit would continue to be "one area among several areas we look to reduce."

"My position has been and remains the mounted patrol should be disbanded or run with private dollars," he said. "I care about [Hartford's] image, but I care more about substance."

Linda Demikat, a retired Hartford school principal who has lived across the street from Bushnell Park since 2001, disagreed, saying that the unit provides a valuable service.

"They're building relationships, which fosters mutual respect and trust," Demikat said. "The police department needs that to do their jobs."

Demikat acknowledged that seeing the unit in the park also makes her feel good about Hartford.

"Some people might think it's unnecessary, but we are the capital city and need something to be proud of."

Copyright 2014 The Hartford Courant

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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