I SWORE I’d never write another column about the horse cops. I literally said this last week to a City Hall staffer.
And yet here I am again, with tidings about the Portland Police Bureau’s whinnying, shrinking, and heretofore-invincible Mounted Patrol Unit (MPU).
Portland, I think this is the year it finally rides.
In four of the last eight city budgets, the Portland Police Bureau has responded to demands that it offer possible cuts by suggesting eliminating its horse cops. These are the besaddled officers who attract admirers in Pioneer Courthouse Square, convince people who’d otherwise steer clear to approach cops, and act as a clomping, shitting PR campaign for the men and women of the police bureau.
Offering to sacrifice things like the MPU is a well-worn tactic for bureaus at budget time. The mayor nearly always asks for cuts, so reluctant bureaucrats offer up what former Police Chief Larry O’Dea once termed “sacred cows” that will inevitably inspire citizen outcry if they’re axed. Citizen outcry can hold powerful sway, come budget time.
Former Commissioner Steve Novick went after the horse cops again and again. In 2015, Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman seemed open to eliminating the unit. It galloped beyond their reach.
This time around, Chief Mike Marshman—himself a former horse cop—has stuck with the playbook. As part of a possible two percent budget cut to his undermanned department, Marshman has proposed freeing up more than $1 million by doing away with the unit.
And it looks like he’ll have a taker in new Mayor Ted Wheeler, the city’s police commissioner, who’ll propose a budget late next month. At a budget hearing last week, Wheeler hinted he’s willing to chop the dwindling unit in order to help maintain and bolster a community policing presence.
“I don’t think it’s an equal trade-off,” Wheeler said. “I’d rather go toward a foot-based patrol and community policing.”
For an idea of how the mayor’s reaching that vantage, take a look at the current makeup of the MPU.
The unit’s technically budgeted for four officers and a sergeant, but because of the PPB’s more than 50 vacant positions, it’s not even close. Rather, the MPU today consists of two cops (an officer and a sergeant), eight horses, three stable attendants, and a horse trainer. The animals are housed and fed at a Lake Oswego stable, and driven by trailer into Portland for duty each workday.
The police bureau’s voiced hopes to instead keep the horses near the St. Johns Bridge, but the steeds might be fired before that can happen.
“He is likely to recommend a cut to the mounted patrol,” said Wheeler’s chief spokesperson, Michael Cox, when asked about the mayor’s comments in last week’s budget hearing. “It is an important service and has value, but there are more urgent areas to spend that money.”
To be clear, axing the MPU won’t free up $1 million. The officers in the unit will be transferred to other duties, and will still be on the bureau’s payroll.
This could also all change. That aforementioned citizen outcry hasn’t failed the mounted patrol yet, and horses are a hell of a drug.
But with any luck, this is my last horse cop column.