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Foot and Hoof Patrol: Meaningfully Connecting Cops and Citizens

Agencies big and small can benefit from keeping their foot, bike, and mounted units well-staffed and supported—failing to do so can do more harm than any budgetary savings can justify.

December 07, 2018  |  by Doug Wyllie, Police Magazine 

Earlier this week, we reported that Portland (OR) Mayor Ted Wheeler plans to bring a new pilot program before City Council to deploy non-sworn and unarmed "officers" who would be "engaged in the community in non-emergency calls."

The so-called Public Safety Support Specialists—or PS3s—will reportedly be funded in part by monies no longer being directed to the department's mounted unit following its dissolution in 2017.

The department said that the PS3s grew out of a 2016 proposal to create a cadre of officers who would respond to minor property crimes and nuisance calls, among other such calls.

I don't want to loiter too long on the current news from the City of Roses, but several issues there demand immediate attention.

Bait and Switch

When the proposal to retire the mounted unit was made, it was indicated that the officers in the unit would return to the streets as part of the bicycle patrol to fill the gap in community policing duties on the streets.

While it's certainly not as much fun as patrolling with your equine partner, some of the basic benefits of mounted patrol are met on two wheels.

However, it now appears that the officers formerly on horseback are now seated in vehicles measured by horsepower, not by pedal power.

Further, according to the Willamette Week, the new unarmed "officers" will spend little time on the streets—instead providing support by manning the front desks at precincts or waiting for tow trucks at traffic collisions.

In both cases, the benefit of having police directly interact with the public on the sidewalks has been diminished.

The whole thing now carries the stench of "bait and switch" on the part of the mayor and the political machine in Portland.

However tempting it is to speculate on the current mess in the upper northwest, let's instead briefly examine the benefits for law enforcement agencies of having boots, hooves, and bicycle tires on the streets in Anytown, USA.

Building Meaningful Connections

It warms my heart when I see two uniformed patrol officers walking foot patrol, stopping to talk with citizens and building meaningful relationships with the community. This is the essence of community policing—officers on foot create opportunities for the public to connect with their police (and vice versa). Conversely, when officers are wrapped in two tons of metal and plastic, that opportunity for real connection is essentially lost.

Foot patrol isn't for everybody—ideally "the beat" is staffed entirely by volunteers—but officers who are well-suited to the assignment typically thrive in the role, becoming more well-known to the people in their sector than local elected officials or even the chief of police.

Officers on foot patrol quickly become integrated into the pulse of the public—and that's priceless.

Further, officers deployed with the primary purpose of community engagement also are a de-facto crime prevention strategy. History has shown that in neighborhoods with foot patrols there is a reduction in minor crimes over time.

Admittedly, foot patrol has some drawbacks and challenges. For example, it is manpower intensive and many agencies simply don't have the staff. With well-documented recruiting challenges, the foot patrol officer is the first to be reassigned to other duties.

Furthermore, in some jurisdictions foot patrol is geographically impractical—without some manner of transportation, covering a large area on foot is impossible. This is where an agency might consider bicycles or horses.

Pedals and Ponies

Bike patrol units are excellent for deployment in large business districts, college campuses, urban parks, airports, and other sprawling areas. Additionally, bike patrol units offer essentially the same opportunity for community interaction—they are highly-visible to the citizens where they patrol and are highly approachable to the public. Officers on bikes can…

  • get to inaccessible areas more quickly than other units.
  • more easily interact with citizens in non-police situations.
  • intimately understand their sector, and share that information.
  • let your community better understand that police are people too.
  • prevent crimes from ever occurring through problem oriented policing.

Then, of course, there is the mounted patrol unit such as the one that has been eliminated in Portland.

The pairing of police and horses is woven into the fabric of American law enforcement history—preceding even the days of Jack "Coffee" Hays and the Earps of Tombstone. Formalized mounted units were not far behind those lawmen of the Wild West. The Boston Police Department began its mounted unit in 1870. New York followed a year later. Many other agencies quickly followed suit.

If not only for continuing the storied history of mounted police, departments must recognize the value of having those resources in the stable, so to speak. In addition to being magnets for curious kids, mounted units have myriad missions outside of community policing.

Naturally, crowd control immediately comes to mind, followed closely by rural search and rescue.

In both of those roles, the mounted officer not only has an elevated position from which he or she may provide watch, but well-trained police horses are savvy and intelligent creatures that provide a second set of eyes and ears. These animals have unexplainable instincts, and when paired with the right rider, the partnership and bond rivals that of a K-9 and its human handler.

Then, of course, there are the events—from festivals to parades—at which the mounted unit is simultaneously ambassador and sentinel. Nothing says "pomp and circumstance" more than a team of horses driven by capable cops. A team ready to transition from ceremony to emergency response in an instant is invaluable.

Unintended Upside

It's no secret that in many American cities, the citizens have a sense of detachment from their police. In fact, in many places, the public remains outwardly hostile toward law enforcement. Even in places where the community-police relationship is strong, that bond can quickly be damaged or destroyed altogether in an instant with one tragic incident.

When officers and citizens have had years of regular interactions not involving criminal investigation or crime fighting, vast volumes of community goodwill can be accumulated. That's the equivalent of public relations money in the bank. If an incident perceived to be negative occurs, that goodwill can mean the difference between calm and chaos in the streets.

For an array of reasons, agencies big and small can benefit from keeping their foot, bike, and mounted units well-staffed and supported—failing to do so can do more harm than any budgetary savings can justify.

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