Reluctant chief and board choose boots on ground over horseshoes on Ocean Blvd.
By Patrick Cronin
Hampton Union, Friday, October 30, 2009
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
[Photo by Rich Beauchesne]
A close to 30-year tradition may be coming to the end as plans are underway to put the Hampton Police Department's Mounted Patrol Unit out to pasture.
The unit, which was created by former Deputy Police Chief Dennis Pelletier in 1981, is slated to be cut from the town's 2010 budget.
"It was strictly financial," said Town Manager Fred Welch. "It was either horseshoes on the street or boots on the street."
Selectmen voted unanimously this week to slash the unit as part of $500,000 worth of cuts it directed department heads to make to the town's proposed operating budget.
It's something that cities and town across the nation that had mounted patrol units have been forced to do because of budget constraints.
Five year's ago there were over 400 mounted patrol units nationally, but now there are less than 100, according to American Police Beat magazine.
"Mounted patrols all over the country are being cut because they are a luxury," said Hampton Police Chief Jamie Sullivan. "They are something the public loves, but they are an expensive unit to run.
"As budgets dwindle we are being forced to make considerations that we wouldn't ordinary do," the chief said.
Sullivan said if it was up to him Hampton's unit would remain intact.
"When I was asked by the board to choose between officers on the street and the mounted patrol, my initial answer was 'I want both,'" Sullivan said.
But when selectmen ordered department heads for further budget cuts, the chief said he had no other choice.
"Clearly having sufficient officers to answer calls and respond to emergencies is more important," Sullivan said.
Selectman Richard Bateman, who is also a part-time police officer, said he had mixed emotions about disbanding the unit. He was one of the officers who helped in the initial fund-raising to establish the unit in response to crowd control issues that plagued Hampton Beach in 1978 and 1980.
"I'm sad to see it go," Bateman said. "It's a piece of Hampton's history, not just the Police Department's. But the move is strictly about the budget."
Bateman said the horses are not only a great public relations tool for the department, but when dealing with a unruly crowd, an officer on horseback is worth 10 on foot.
"I have experienced what the horse can do," Bateman said. "I remember riding up on a motorcycle on a very bad night and there were fights all over the place. We had seven officers in that area and I didn't see a single officer standing.
"My first call at that point was very simple: Get me the horses," the selectman said. The guys came and within two minutes the entire thing was quelled."
While the unit has been slated to be cut before, it was saved by the public via a petition warrant article passed at the 2006 Town Meeting.
In the last few years, however, the unit has become a shadow of what it once was.
The unit was sidelined in 2007 after all four Tennessee walking horses were found to be severely underweight at the place they were being housed. An equine specialist determined their rapid weight loss was the result of confusion over their feeding schedule.
The same year, the unit dwindled to two after two horses, Buddy and Blaze, were retired because of their ages and were not replaced due to budget constraints.
"It was unfortunate when it was reduced to two," Bateman said. "When you saw the first hit you kept wondering and waiting for that second hit."
The unit was almost in danger of being disbanded in 2007 after another horse, Patriot, was forced into retirement after coming down with myeloencephalitis, which is essentially multiple sclerosis for a horse.
At the time, an anonymous donor came forward to purchase a new horse to keep the unit a part of the town.
Welch said the unit in the last year was more for show then it was for active duty due to lack of training. While the horses were seen at the beach this summer, it was in a limited capacity,
Sullivan said that is one of the reason why he added additional money to this year's proposed budget.
"We need to train both the horses and officers in all the training that is necessary to be safe and effective," Sullivan said. "That has lagged due to the budget. We haven't been able to put the amount of time necessary in to get their skills in place that is beneficial to us."
Welch said he would like the unit to remain and suggested that it should be privately funded.
"It was a suggestion," said Welch, who noted that the patrol was privately funded when it first started. "We are not requesting it, but it would be nice retain it."
The town manager said there are currently no plans to put forward a selectmen-sponsored warrant article to save the unit. Welch said if the unit is lost, it's not only a loss to the police department but also the town.
"It symbolized what the Police Department and the community is," Welch said. "It represented a good pubic relations image for the community, but more importantly, it also represented protection for the police and residents."