There are only seven members of the Kansas City Police who patrol on horseback, but at the police board meeting on Tuesday, they were the most celebrated cops on the KCPD.
“I patrolled the same neighborhoods for many years," retired mounted officer Aaron Shillcutt told the board. In a patrol car, he said, people run inside. "You change your uniform a little bit and you start riding a horse and everybody wants to talk to you.”
Homicides and drive-by shootings are rising, Chief Rick Smith told commissioners. KCPD needs to react. “We’re going to spend a lot of emphasis working on our criminal element in this city that’s creating this violence," Smith said. "That takes manpower.”
Dozens of people showed up and dozens more emailed and called police commissioners trying to make sure that extra manpower doesn't come at the expense of disbanding the mounted unit.
Pastor John Modest Miles said his neighborhood around 27th and Prospect has improved greatly in the last ten years. “It’s had a lot to do with the mounted patrol and the interaction the officers have done with the community.”
If there was a theme to the argument to keep the mounted patrol, it was just that—the interaction of mounted officers with people.
Even criminals would bring their kids out to see the horses, said Charles Porch who retired as a KCPD mounted officer in 2011. “Everybody around here is going to look at us, see me, talking to the police but we’re not snitching because our kids want to see the horses.”
This year the mounted unit has a budget of $633,000. That pays for the officers, the stable upkeep, feed and, basic veterinary care. The non-profit Friends of the KC Mounted Patrol pays for officer training, stable enhancements like a watering system and the group just bought new saddles and other tack.
The question for police commanders is whether the money would be better spent deploying officers elsewhere.
“It’s not what is going on today. It's what is going on five years from now," said Capt. Ed Adams, head of the volunteer Jackson County Sheriff Mounted Posse. "I believe with this mounted patrol that we can deter crime five years out.”
Mounted officers are most visible when controlling a crowd, like on the Country Club Plaza or in Westport on weekend nights. Indeed, it's often said that one officer on a horse is like ten on the ground.
But a 2015 Rand Europe study on mounted units in the United Kingdom said the horses are best deployed on regular patrol. "The study suggests that the highest demonstrable value of mounted police is found in neighbourhood settings," the report concluded.
Mounted patrols have come and gone in many cities. Philadelphia disbanded its mounted unit in the early 2000s, only to reconstitute it in 2011. St. Louis has added mounted officers in the last several years. But in February, the St. Paul police got rid of both its horses and motorcycles because of an increase of officer injuries, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
For now, mounted officers and their supporters will just have to wait for the chief to make a decision. “There’s no doubt that mounted patrol is an ambassador for this police department and does great things," Smith acknowledged to the board. But as violent crime spikes in Kansas City Smith may yet decide those officers may be better used elsewhere in the KCPD.