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.
"They really didn't even give [the mounted unit] a chance. Chief Gainer has 535 bosses," Campbell said, referring to House and Senate members, "and every one of them thinks they know something about police work, when, in fact, the majority of them don't know one damn thing."
Campbell said the horse patrol unit "earned its keep," especially for helping to control crowds during and after the Jan. 20 swearing-in ceremony for President Bush. Shutting it down after such a short time is "shortsighted," he said.
"The terrorists are usually in the crowd. Maybe [Moran] doesn't know that," Campbell said. "I heard that he was just worried about stepping in horse manure."
Andy Maybo, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police labor committee for the Capitol Police, said the six officers will be reassigned within the 1,522-member department. The horses will be given to the Park Police.
Instead of staying in Washington, the horses have been trucked in from a federal facility in Northern Virginia, an equine commute that Moran has also criticized. The Capitol Police had hoped to build closer, low-cost modular stables in the District and to eventually build a more permanent facility that would have been shared with other law enforcement agencies.
Maybo and others maintained that an officer on a horse can do the job of 10 officers on foot, especially in crowd and traffic control situations. A horse-mounted officer, they argue, can see "10 people deep" and maneuver to hard-to-get places with greater speed and ease. They said such abilities come in handy when officers are trying to keep people away from suspicious packages or deal with crowds forced to flee Capitol Hill buildings when planes fly into restricted airspace.
Also, they said, an officer on a horse is easier to spot if people need help and is a friendly presence in the neighborhood. The horse patrols, they added, have been useful for policing crowds at concert events on Capitol Hill.
Some members of the public have rallied to back the program. They have started a Web site, www.savecapitolpolicehorses.org, urging people to write senators and representatives.
"If there's a crisis going on, you need the unit right there to handle it," said Karen Bune, who teaches victimology at George Mason University. "You can't wait and say, 'Send a horse over here.' "
Moran is unmoved.
"It's far-fetched to say we need them for all these duties," he said. "Why would we want mounted horses in the middle of concerts? That doesn't seem like a rowdy crowd to me."
Moran dismissed Campbell's claim that he might be worried that the horses will make a mess.
"It's really a matter of redundancy," he said. "It's true that I've spent much of my political life stepping in manure, but I'm certainly not worried about stepping in the droppings of the mounted police unit."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.