Fort Lauderdale Mounted Unit, and All Cops on Horseback, Could Soon Fade Into Sunset

Sgt. Kevin Finn takes a step forward to make sure his next point isn't missed. His spurs clank on the barn's concrete floor. His calvary hat is turned just slightly to the side, gold tassels on the brim below a Fort Lauderdale police crest. His ice-blue eyes go still, not threatening but just serious enough to know this former bull rider isn't kidding.

"You cut this and the day will come when the calvary won't come over the hill and save the day," he says.

That's the way Finn sees it. The Fort Lauderdale police mounted unit, the last mounted unit in Broward County, stands between us civilized folk and the impeding horde of protesters that could break through any day.

But these days, when government spending is scrutinized perhaps more than ever, mounted

units are being dropped nationwide. South Florida used to have more than two dozen mounted units. Now they're a rarity. Only Fort Lauderdale and Miami have full-time mounted units, while BSO and Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office put them to use only occasionally.

The undisputed benefit of a mounted unit is for crowd control -- nobody debates that a cop on a horse can back protesters up behind barricades far more effectively than an officer on foot. How often that's needed, however, is debatable, and that debate is often ending these days with police barns being shuttered.

Finn doesn't want to see that happening, no matter how bad the economy gets. Finn was raised in Davie and spent years on the rodeo circuit before becoming a cop. He came over from criminal investigations six years ago to take over the mounted unit, which was in rough shape.

Fort Lauderdale's mounted unit began in 1982 with six officers. The department cut its budget dramatically in 2003 until just two mounted cops remained. When Finn took over, police departments were flush with housing-bubble tax money, and his job was to bring the unit back up to full strength. Since then, the unit has fallen back to four officers.

In October, the department's Citizen Review Board questioned whether the mounted unit was worth the money, so Finn put together a PowerPoint. Horses are cheaper than patrol cars, costing just $10 per day, he argued. Without them, 25 to 50 officers would be needed to replace the job one horse can do in crowd control, he told the board.

"After showing them the numbers, it went from all of them against the mounted unit to every one of them for it," Finn says.

Of course, statistics go both ways. Horses may be cheaper to run than patrol cars, but the four mounted officers still have police-issued vehicles, so there's actually an operating loss. It costs $45,638 a year to maintain the barn and its seven horses, along with another $400,000 or so that Finn estimated it costs in salaries for the four officers.

And the issue of crowd control is also debatable. Finn says his unit responds to 18 incidents of "civil unrest" a year, but he counted events like the recent teacher protest of mass layoffs. The crowd may have pushed too far into traffic occasionally, but it's hard to argue that horses were needed to keep the peaceful crowd from rioting.

Finn points to events like the school district's early release day, when 1,000 students who have gotten out early head to the beach. Cops in cars or on foot have difficulty seeing what's happening in a seething crowd, Finn says. "If you have to do the comparison of horse to car, there's really no comparison."

Mounted units have even more limitations on regular patrol, in which they write traffic tickets and patrol high-crime areas. They can't chase cars or take someone in custody over to the jail (forget hog-tying a suspect behind the saddle). Cops on horseback also can't chase a suspect inside a building -- leaving a horse outside is the equivalent of leaving the keys in a patrol car. But Finn says that's negated by the ability of a horse to chase down fleeing suspects on foot.

"My wife always ask me how I can catch a bad guy on a horse," Finn says. "And I say, 'We give him a head start.'"

That's pretty John Wayne for the tough streets of Fort Lauderdale, but that's just the way Finn wants it. One of his favorite stories is of El Capitan, a blond and beige quarterhorse that wouldn't let anyone ride him. Finn broke the horse and then trained others to ride him. These days, he'll need that same determination to beat those who might question his budget.

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Eric Barton
Contact: Eric Barton