Circa 2004, the last thing you might expect to see in Little Rock is a lawman sitting tall in the saddle. As of May 29, however, downtown criminals used to dodging police in horseless carriages have something new to look out for: cops of the equine persuasion.
Beginning the weekend of Riverfest, the Little Rock Police Department resumed horse patrols of downtown streets for the first time since 2001. Three mounted officers will now be stationed in the River Market, patrolling much of downtown whenever other obligations don't draw them away.
Formed in 1985, the LRPD's mounted patrol normally consists of a supervisor and six officers (currently, an open position and one officer serving in the military has cut the force to five). After a try-out in which they're judged on things like balance and how comfortable they are around horses, mounted officers take about 160 hours of training in subjects like equine anatomy and diseases, and spend many hours in the saddle learning pursuit tactics and bonding with the steed assigned them.
Housed in a stable at the LRPD training compound on Arch Street Pike, the horses are trucked in for duty every morning, normally working an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift, though that schedule can change as needed. Previously, mounted officers had only been stationed in Stifft Station and neighborhoods south of Roosevelt Road, sometimes deploying to other neighborhoods for "saturation patrols" when crime spiked there.
"We'd been working on trying to get them back downtown for quite some time," said Sgt. Dennis Ball, supervisor of the mounted patrol. "With developments like the Clinton Library coming in November and all the things we've got going on downtown, the decision was made."
A few years back, Ball was one of the first officers assigned to the River Market area police substation. A former mounted patrol officer before that, Ball said he is "ecstatic" to see the horses back downtown. In addition to the ability to move over terrain that would stop a patrol car or motorcycle, the horses provide officers with a higher vantage point so they can see farther and over obstacles such as privacy fences.
Ball said horses are powerful public relations tools, since people like them and will stop and chat with their human partners. Their true value, however, is in foiling crime. "They have such a commanding presence," Ball said. "You can see a horse a lot easier than you can see an officer on a bike or such. They're easy to be seen and easy to get to, and if you're doing something you shouldn't, they're a deterrent."
Officer Philip Marsh is assigned to the alert center at 33rd and Ringo streets. With his horse, a 1,300 pound quarterhorse/Morgan mix named Magnum, Marsh patrols south of Roosevelt Road. "We tend to linger in the area longer than even a bicycle. Motorcycles and cars, they're through pretty quick. We can notice a lot more things that are going on in the area," Marsh said. "We make it a habit of riding down these alleys and looking over these privacy fences and checking these back yards. Making sure there's nothing going on."
Sharon Priest, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, thinks the mounted patrol will be a good fit for the area. "It's not an imposing visibility," Priest said. "It's not like being in the middle of a ring of armed officers. It's a friendly visibility, but everybody knows that they can do what they need to do."
With the return of streetcars later this year, Priest said the horses will have a big impact on the ability of police to get through crowded streets where a police car might be stuck.
For all the benefits that mounted patrol will bring to downtown, there is one lingering concern that even the worst-maintained patrol car doesn't leave behind.
"We don't use manure bags on our horses," Marsh said, "and every now and then we do get a complaint about that."
Then again, what's a few horse apples in exchange for safer streets?