An encounter with police is something most people try to avoid, but officers of Detroit's Mounted Police Division tend to attract people. You see them at public events like the recent St. Patrick's Day Parade in Corktown, and you see members of the public admiring or even petting their horses – in other words, having a pleasant and friendly interaction.
Mounted police are particularly useful at public events where their high vantage points allow them to see over crowds and spot trouble, but the police work of a mounted officer goes well beyond ceremonial appearances. "That's very little of what we do," says Sergeant Erik Eide, commanding officer of the Mounted Division. "80 percent is high visibility patrol. And we're on patrol from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. the next day, all over the city."
'High visibility patrol' means using tactics that heighten citizen awareness of police. Mounted officers can't really take cover – they're used for the opposite effect. "Studies and crime stats have proven that mounted officers on patrol deter crime," says Eide. "When a horse strolls down the street, everybody sees it."
According to Eide, the Mounted Police Division has an important role to play in crime-fighting efforts. "I term us the most versatile unit in the entire department," he says. "We do anything a normal officer would -- we enforce all violations and answer calls if close by."
Established in 1893 and one of the first such divisions in the country, the Mounted Police Division had 80 officers and 60 horses housed in five barns during its heyday in the 1970s. On staff were a leatherman to make saddles, a blacksmith to make horseshoes, and a drill team, which did demonstration maneuvers based off the United States Cavalry Division in a performance that lasted 28 minutes.
But like most city services, the division has been fighting an uphill battle for funding for decades. Today, the unit employs just six officers and two sergeants caring for seven horses. They were even briefly disbanded in 2005 until Eide and another sergeant successfully lobbied Mayor Dave Bing to reinstate the division in 2009. A year later, the unit relocated from Belle Isle to its current, more neighborhood-accessible headquarters in Palmer Park where its stables are nestled between wooded trails and historically designated, art deco apartment buildings.
The sun rises over the DMPD barn in Palmer Park
The unit stays afloat financially through private donations and funding from two government foundations. Even with this modest outside funding, tight budgets mean every division has to make a daily case for its existence. And Eide makes a strong one.
First, there's a financial argument. The horses themselves are donated and last longer than patrol cars. Hay is cheaper than gasoline and re-stitching a saddle cover, which are also donated, costs less than new brake pads.
DMPD Tack RoomOfficer Jerry Willis unloads Hosier from the Detroit Mounted Police Divisions's trailer
But the true value of the unit can't be found on the accounting ledger. Eide believes that the Mounted Division acts as a goodwill ambassador for the police by presenting a humanized face to the public. "Everybody wants to pet the horse," says Eide. "That allows us to be a bridge gap between police officers and the community. To be in this unit, you have to be able to communicate, talk to people and children, and do effective outreach."
Eide also worked in regular patrol in both the 4th and 9th precincts and has firsthand comparisons between his interactions in a patrol car and on horseback. The difference is stark. People aren't hesitant in approaching him when riding his horse and the tone is friendlier, more conversational.
This is especially important now with tensions high between the police and public due to recent high-profile encounters around the country that have resulted in the deaths of young black men at the hands of police.
"Most people see the police because they had to call 911," says Eide. "For us that's rarely the case. When we interact with the public they're able to see officers in a different light."
Even though the division isn't straining the city's resources, its modest funding and staff means a lot of extra work for its officers. In addition to staffing the office 24-hours-a-day, they also clean the stables, maintain the buildings, and groom, feed, and care for the horses.
Officer J Washington II fastens a bridle on Big Babby for their University District patrol
"You have to really want to be here," says Eide. "It's also 480 hours of probably the most difficult training besides the special response team. It puts demand on the body most haven't experienced before. Plus you're trying to control something that has a mind of its own."
Given the work requirements and lengthy shifts, it's clear the officers have an affection for their animals. Eide, for example, grew up in tiny Yale, Mich. where he worked with horses at his aunt's stable starting in the 5th grade.
Once in the Mounted Division, officers are assigned their own horses and take the lead in grooming, riding, and ultimately developing a lasting relationship with them. There's a 30-day trial period from when a horse is donated to the unit to when it is deemed fit for service. On that day, the primary officer takes official ownership of the horse by naming it and shaving its main. Eide's horse is Hoosier, a black-coated, 7-year-old Percheron with a white star (a spot on a horse's forehead), so named because the horse is from Indiana and Eide is fond of the movie "Hoosiers." The unit's other horses have colorful names like Vader, Big Baby, and Elmo.
After spending so much time caring for and riding their horses, Eide says an almost extra-sensory communication develops between officers and their animals that is essential to effective police work. "It's all in body language," says Eide. "There's nothing verbal. Eventually they'll get to know what you want, and do it, just by you thinking about it."
Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmondry.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.