Last Gallop for Capitol Police Mounted Unit

Officers Steve Nunn, left, on Patriot, and Sgt. Kathy Bignotti, riding Honor, patrol the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.
Officers Steve Nunn, left, on Patriot, and Sgt. Kathy Bignotti, riding Honor, patrol the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. (Photos By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Dennis Ayers gave 28 years of service to law enforcement, all atop a horse. For him, there is no better way to do patrol work, particularly crowd control.

"A police officer on the street is looking at someone's neck or Adam's apple," Ayers said. "On a horse, you sit 12 feet up and can see everything around you."

Congress doesn't share his enthusiasm, having decided this summer to cut off funding to a small mounted unit run by the U.S. Capitol Police. Ayers and others are in a lather that the unit -- six officers and five horses -- is being forced to disband Oct. 1, less than a year and a half after it first saddled up.

Ayers, a retired U.S. Park Police officer, helped evaluate the training and performance of officers in the Capitol Police unit. Riding quarter horses named Honor, Freedom, Justice, Patriot and Tribute, they help patrol the Capitol grounds and nearby neighborhoods.

"It's hard for me to understand why anyone would do away with a police tool, especially after the Capitol Police had already invested in training and setup," Ayers said.

House members, led by Reps. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) and Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), questioned the need for more officers on horseback when the nation's capital has similar units maintained by the Park Police and D.C. police. They also raised concerns about projected long-range costs and argued that crowd control is not an essential service for Congress and its staff.

"Our main security concern on the Hill is terrorists, not crowds," said Moran, who has opposed the horse patrol from the start.

"I really don't see the need for the horse unit," he said. "It's duplicative of what the U.S. Park Police already do." Besides, he added, the horses "need pooper scoopers."

The unit was launched in fiscal 2005 with $82,000 and, until Congress reversed course, would have received $145,000 in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The total Capitol Police budget is nearly $250 million.

The horseback unit was a favorite project of Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer, who was instrumental in starting the D.C. police force's mounted unit four years ago, when he was second in command to D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. The idea also won the enthusiastic support of then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican who once rode with a mounted police unit in Sacramento.

A Capitol Police spokesman said that Gainer and other members of the department will have no comment on the issue now that Congress has acted.

But Campbell had plenty to say, accusing House members of trying to micromanage the police chief.

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