Public sees the human side of police in the Mounted Division

What weighs between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds, is afraid of anything that's new to it, and yet has a great temperament for policing large groups of people? Correspondent Marin Heinritz has the answer.
On a warm overcast night in early July, two horses stop on Water Street near the Arcadia Festival Site in downtown Kalamazoo to snack on some grass growing near the curb. Horns honk, electric guitars wail, and people ask the men and women in brown uniforms riding the horses if they could pet them, maybe snap a selfie or two.

Roscoe, his rider Captain Dan Weston, Walker, and his rider Grant Solomon, are members of the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s Department Mounted Division, and they patrol the summer festivals in Kalamazoo. They work Western Michigan University events, including football games and patrol the Edison neighborhood in July and August when crowds are known to gather. They're sometimes called out for high profile events like the visit of Vice President Joe Biden and a gathering of white supremacists. Altogether, it comes to a total of about 60 assignments a year.

The Mounted Division is part of a long tradition in policing. Police equestrian units have existed in the United States since the early 20th Century, and they are used by city, state, and county police in 40 states as well as federal parks and the District of Columbia.

"In general,"  Weston says, "we are a law enforcement unit that does its very best to prevent crime and prevent issues from happening and developing, and we are very approachable."

Soon a crowd forms, including three women, a child, two men, a Great Dane, a Pit Bull Terrier puppy, and a man in a wheelchair who had been holding a piece of cardboard that read "US Vet, God Bless." Roscoe and Walker seem to enjoy the attention.

One of the women kisses Roscoe. "I’ll tell you a secret no one ever knew," she says and then turns to her friend. "He’s so calm. I love it."

"I’ve never had my Crown Royal petted once. No one wants to rub the hood of my police vehicle," Weston says. "There’s something about it that people are drawn to and relaxed by and seem to enjoy and at the same time we are a police presence."

"We’re a PR tool as well as a crime prevention strategy," he adds. "It is a phenomenon that I never get tired of seeing. The good people in the neighborhood love the horses, and the people with bad intentions flee from the horses. They want no part of it."

Not only are horses magnificent towering creatures that weigh 1,200 to 1,500 pounds, they can travel quickly across great distances, and can see in the dark, and their natural instincts and behaviors are ideal for police work.

"The horses are nonjudgmental. They’re in the moment," says Tamara Homnick, Program Director at Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Augusta. "Their life in the wild depends on their reading a situation."  And "they mirror the emotions that are around them. If your behavior is appropriate, they'll be comfortable. If you’re tense or your body language is threatening, the horse will pull away from that."

Solomon, who has been working as an officer in Kalamazoo’s Mounted Division since its inception in 1961, put it more succinctly. "He doesn’t miss much," he says, of his horse, Walker.

Three other mounted sheriff's deputies joined Weston and Solomon as they headed west on Water Street and turned north along the periphery of the Blues Festival. A Central City Parking employee appeared when necessary with a shovel and bucket.

By the time the mounted police turned onto Kalamazoo Avenue, they were greeted by a new group of horse enthusiasts, one of whom had never seen a horse before.

"Can I touch him? He’s not going to kick me, is he?" asks Carol Doss, 46, of Kalamazoo. "Awww, that’s beautiful. Oh my God. I’m touching a horse. They so big!" She adds, "We didn’t have none of that in Benton Harbor. Kalamazoo do. Kalamazoo got all the horses."

No tax dollars finance the Mounted Division in Kalamazoo and the division is completely volunteer. Three of the 20 members are sworn police officers, and the rest have graduated from the County Sheriff’s Reserve Academy.

The officers receive no compensation for their work, and they own and care for their horses, footing the bill themselves for feed, vet bills, trucks, trailers, barn facilities, hay storage, carrier services, saddles, leathers, uniforms, firearms and fuel expenses.

"We own our horses so I care for my horse all day every day. And in a police unit where the police department owns the horse, they don’t establish the same bond as a horse where the rider owns him," Weston says.

In 2008, the Kalamazoo Mounted Division received the honor of being named the Overall First Place Agency at the National Mounted Police Colloquium in Lexington, Ky. Weston attributes their excellence, in part, to their relationship with their horses.

"That horse’s natural instinct is saying ‘This is crazy, I’m getting out of here.’ He has to have so much trust in the rider that he will do these things he will ask him to do--like ride down Michigan Avenue with noise and flashing lights and everything else going on," Weston says.

"Horses are only afraid of two things: things that move and things that don’t move," he adds. "They literally are afraid of anything they don’t see in their pasture every day, so bringing horses into the downtown metropolitan area is a big deal."

As the sun began to set, Weston and Solomon rode Roscoe and Walker across Kalamazoo Avenue past the Gospel Mission behind the train station. They were greeted by an enthusiastic bachelor party of train buffs with cameras who awaited the 9:20 westbound Wolverine. "Between the horses and trains it’s like going back in time," says Michael Blaszak, 62, of LaGrange, Ind. "It’s like 1890 here."

When the train approached, Weston rode Roscoe along the north side of the tracks directly toward the screaming train. Roscoe walked calmly, Weston petted his neck, and the reflective tape around Roscoe’s ankles glowed in the light from the train’s glaring headlight. They marched forward and back alongside the track as the train continued its high-pitched whistle, and Weston waved at the conductor.

"Every horse has a different personality," Weston says. "They’re just like people. Some are high strung and some aren’t. Most horses could never do this."

Meanwhile, the other mounted police had gone through the drive through at the McDonald’s on Kalamazoo Avenue at Rose Street for ice cream and to greet more fans in the parking lot. Once they came to a stopping point near the bus depot, one of the horses whinnied.

"She’s calling out to the other horses to see where they are," Effie Secondi, Stark’s rider, explains. "The hardest part on these guys is they have a herd mentality. They want to stick together."

The horses reunited after the train pulled out of the station, and made their way back to the Blues Fest. By the time they arrived, the crowd had thinned out and the music was more low-key.

"You guys have the best seats in the house," says a passerby to Weston. "We do," Weston agrees.

Marin Heinritz has spent 15 years writing freelance in Boston, San Francisco, and Kalamazoo. A Kalamazoo resident, she teaches journalism and creative writing at Kalamazoo College.
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