The D.C. police mounted force has new horse trailers, new leather tack and new uniforms. But the officers can ride only the two horses stabled at the U.S. Park police barn in Rock Creek Park. Without its own facility, the unit cannot bring in more horses.
The unit's future, it seems, is unstable.
"I have the siding up on the house, but I don't have the foundation," said Sgt. Leo Scully, one of two officers who revived the mounted unit two years ago.
In June, six more officers graduated from a U.S. Park Police training course, but they risk losing time in the saddle because they don't have regular access to the horses. That means unit cohesion and ties between officer and hors are all the more difficult.
On a recent night, officers Mike Mentzer and Jose Rodriguez stood tall above the crowds heading to a Washington Wizards game at MCI Center. At least a dozen people stopped and asked the names of the horses and whether they could be petted.
The officers readily agreed -- that's part of being on a horse. Mentzer and Rodriguez were also determined to issue tickets to cars parked illegally, answer questions from citizens and clear sidewalks of panhandlers.
Michael Fitzgerald, executive assistant police chief and a 31-year veteran, said he was initially skeptical about the mounted patrol. But the favorable response from citizens, and anecdotal evidence that horse patrols reduce crimes in neighborhoods, have made the unit a daily part of policing.
"When it first started, I said 'What do we need horses for?' " said Fitzgerald, who deploys the unit after daily crime meetings. Now he sees "no negatives" with the program, because "it's not like a pony ride . . . these are some serious animals."
The problem is finding a permanent home. A proposal to stable horses at a temporary barn on the grounds of St. Elizabeths hospital in Southeast was shelved after Fitzgerald decided against funding a temporary facility with an indefinite lease. How to fund the pilot program slowed progress, too.
Officials are negotiating with U.S. Park Police for partial use of its barn at Fort Dupont in Northeast, Fitzgerald said. Renovations are needed, and the hope is to begin work in the first quarter of the new year, he said.
Still, two-man patrols have been hard at work. Cmdr. Winston Robinson of the 7th District has used the unit to address an entrenched drug market along Valley Avenue SE. "The community likes any kind of police coverage," Robinson said. "I think they have a place in our department.
"Who's going to mess with a horse?"
The officers aren't trained to make arrests yet, but Scully said they are making the job of other patrol units easier. From September to Dec. 18, Scully logged the work of the unit, which issued 769 parking tickets and 61 moving violations, reported 19 suspicious people and responded to 13 radio calls.
They have also participated in 15 special details, including September's World Bank/IMF protests. Mounted officers created their own statistic: 2,666 contacts with citizens in the same span.
At first skeptical about how the community would react to the intimidating presence of horseback patrols, D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) now loves them.
"It's not like them charging into Bolsheviks with sabers," Graham said. "Every report I get is positive."
When Catherine Woods, a Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in the Lincoln Heights area of Northeast, first spotted the horses near Minnesota Avenue, she wheeled an illegal U-turn in the street. Crime in her neighborhood includes theft from autos, assaults and drug use.
"I said, 'Wow, isn't this great. We can't get these cars to respond, we can't get foot patrols,' " she said. "They are a presence in the area," she said of the men in blue on horseback.