Photo by Denis C. Theriault

COPS ON HORSEBACK have been a vanishing sight all around the country over the past decade. From San Diego to Boston, the costly specialized units are among the first to go during tight budgets.

Portland's mounted patrol is facing the same fate this year in the face of a $21.5 million deficit and job cuts in the police bureau. And despite a high-profile push to rescue the 122-year-old unit—already granted a reprieve once before in recent years—city sources and others acknowledge its chances for survival, this year, are slim to none.

Cutting the mounted patrol would save the police bureau $1.1 million (mostly in staffing) that Mayor Charlie Hales is hoping will fend off even deeper cuts in units like street patrols and gang enforcement.

"At the end of the day," says Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, "the mayor just isn't sure it's necessary for the core mission of the police department."

That decision, which still needs council approval later this month, won't come without a fight.

The Friends of Portland's Mounted Patrol raises cash every year to help with the cost of the horses' upkeep. It's contributed $25,000 for the past several years, and pledged to increase that contribution to $75,000 this year, out of $175,000 in total upkeep costs. But that's still nowhere near enough to pay for the unit.

An online petition by the group, led by former potential mayoral candidate and reserve cop Bob Ball, has received more than 3,500 signatures as of press time. Advocates are also making the rounds in city hall.

The message is that saving the horse cops amounts to more than historic preservation. They say it's about maintaining a legitimate law-enforcement tool. Their petition says the mounted patrol deters crime, enhances neighborhood safety and livability, is an effective crowd-control resource, and is popular with the community.

Still, most of the city commissioners' offices say they've only had a handful of personal appeals via phone or email—a far more effective means of influence. One city hall staffer suggests the fate of the patrol could still go either way, but that "we haven't had to make cuts like this" before. The staffer says public outcry, historically, has been able to change minds. But Hales appears to be standing pretty firm.

Sergeant Pete Simpson, the police bureau's spokesman, acknowledges that the cops are "not immune to these cuts. These are tough decisions." But he also said, even though Chief Mike Reese has also proposed cutting the horse patrol to save other units, "we're definitely hopeful."

Is it worth saving the horses, though? A police report obtained by the Mercury reveals some of the difficulties patrolling downtown streets—pointing to problems that officers on foot or on bicycle would never encounter. Turns out, having to manage a giant living creature while detaining a perp can be difficult.

Two mounted officers were patrolling downtown in 2011 when they saw a man passed out. They approached to warn him about violating city sidewalk rules. His record revealed a warrant, and his erratic response indicated "some kind of chronic mental illness."

Officer Franz Schoening grabbed the man's jacket collar and then pulled the man's arm over the neck of his horse. But the man struggled against the attempt to hold him. So Schoening dismounted, "as my options from horseback were limited." Meanwhile, Officer Ryan Albertson held both horses and hoped a passing MAX train wouldn't spook them. "If the horses had reacted to the trains going by, he would have been hard pressed to control both of them," the report said.

And because Schoening had to arrest the man all by himself, without help that might have let him use less force, he resorted to knees and pepper spray to put the man in handcuffs.

Simpson calls the mounted patrol an "iconic" part of the city. He says it builds community relations, since "people come up and talk to them, they pet the horse." He also says the unit "makes people perceive officers differently," and that "we're always trying to increase community trust in police."

Simpson argues the horses are effective. The mounted patrol works protests and marches and other crowd-control situations, due to the horses' high visibility, size, and mobility. He says the horses have adjusted to crowds, traffic, and pavement, and "are much more predictable than people might realize,” and “people respect the grace of a 2,000-pound animal."

Studies on police tactics differ on the worth of mounted patrols. Many suggest using bike patrols as a cost-effective replacement. Although some are outliers. A study by the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas found that because mounted units are not significantly more expensive, they're actually more cost effective. This study, however, was conducted by cops for cops, and prizes public relations over other factors.

Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch is far from sentimental about the mounted unit. He says horses can intimidate people, particularly those who are homeless. The city calls the horses ambassadors, but Handelman says that's not what it looks like when you're on the sidewalk looking up. Or protesting. "I've been pressed against a wall, and had my feet stepped on," Handelman says, adding, "they just shouldn't be there at all."