APD's mounted unit hopes to connect with community beyond special events
Abilene police have begun taking to the streets on horseback. APD’s mounted unit doesn’t patrol regularly, but they’re showing up at special events, and the unit’s officers hope the department will expand their duties down the line.
The Abilene Police Department recently introduced a new official mounted patrol unit, featuring horses Gambitt, CB, Wyatt and Argo. They made their debut at the Abilene Police Department’s Trunk or Treat in October and have been seen at other events, such as downtown Abilene parades, and even the Fort Worth Stock Show, since then.
Patrol Officer Jessica Watkins says mounted units give police officers an elevated view of crowds to help find lost children and transport officers quickly to spaces a car couldn’t get to. But Watkins says the most important benefit to a mounted patrol unit is positive community interaction, “A lot of people deal with police on their worst day, and this gives us the option that we get to see people and interact with people and just kind of talk to people without having to be necessarily in an enforcement capacity.”
Watkins joined the APD about ten years ago, just as a previous, unofficial, mounted unit was disbanding. She says she had always hoped the department would bring it back, and she was the one who suggested it to Chief of Police Marcus Dudley when he first arrived in Abilene.
As part of her pitch to the chief, Watkins brought her horse Wyatt to the police station. While she introduced Chief Dudley to Wyatt in the parking lot, some people leaving the court stopped to talk and wanted to meet the horse. In that moment, Chief Dudley says he knew adding a mounted unit was worth pursuing, “Our community loves our animals, we love our police dogs, we love our horses and the opportunity for us to be out and utilize a horse in patrol operations and for ceremonial occasions is just huge.”
Some of Texas’s bigger cities feature mounted units on patrol, with some of the most well-known units in Texas in Dallas, Austin and Houston. What sets the APD mounted unit apart is that it operates on a voluntary basis.
The department sent the officers and Gambit, CB, Wyatt and Argo to Cleburne for a week of intense training last fall. The officers put the horses through stressful situations, including exposing them to fire, sirens and gun-fire, in order to desensitize them. They will continue working with the horses so they don’t spook under pressure, ensuring safety for citizens, officers, and the horses themselves. They will renew their training consistently to maintain their status as official police horses
The four officers who signed up for the unit committed to use their own personal horses, as the city does not fully fund the unit. APD made an agreement with them for an extra $100 monthly as part of specialty unit pay, in addition to three hours of compensation for the care of the animals, exactly what the department does for its K-9 unit.
“Some people actually think that we’re taking taxpayer money for these horses, and they’re not, they're privately owned.” Patrol Officer Sean Yargus rides his horse CB as part of the mounted unit. He says it’s a good deal for the city since the officers bear the fiscal responsibility for the horses’ upkeep, “I feed them, it’s my truck, it’s my trailer, it’s my horse, it’s my tech, and I would be at work during those normal hours anyway so financially it costs pennies compared to other divisions.”
At this stage, the mounted unit only makes appearances at parades and special events. Chief Dudley says there is a potential to expand the unit to work on a more full-time basis, but that would likely mean getting city-owned horses rather than expanding the unit’s duties with personal horses. “We’ll just have to see. If we can secure adequate funding and we can secure a location or facility to be able to have our city on horses maintained, then I can see us being able to have a wonderful addition to the police department.”
And while the horses give the officers a chance to connect with community members, they also say it’s just fun. Officer Yargus, who grew up around horses, says he enjoys the traditional aspect of being on a mounted patrol unit, “Wanting to live the western cowboy lifestyle, being able to add that to my work is great.”
“You get to ride a horse and you get to talk to people,” Officer Watkins says. “Especially little kids, it intrigues them so they want to come see them and talk to them and maybe even pet them.” Officer Watkins says that although there have been a few people who don’t seem to understand the good the horses bring to both the department and the community, people are drawn to animals, and the overall response has been positive.
The members of the unit look forward to engaging more with members of the community at events around the region in the coming months.