Austin police: Mounted Unit worth the cost

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Austin has one of the larger Mounted Patrol Units among Texas law enforcement agencies, a check of various police agencies shows. But officers say regularly using the highly-trained animals for crowd control along Sixth Street is a unique and effective proposition to keep downtown safer for everyone.

“If we have fights breaking out downtown, having these horses come out and move people out of the way so officers can safety work, is really their bread and butter,” says Lt. Tom Sweeney, who oversees the Mounted Unit for Austin Police.

One horse and rider is equivalent to 10 officers on the ground, he said. Sweeney also says people tend to move out of the way of a large, live animal – more so than they would a military-style armored vehicle some departments possess. When the bars close on weekend nights and hundreds of people spill onto the streets, APD combines the horses with foot and bike patrol officers to control crowds.

Since this year’s South by Southwest festival, street lights on Sixth Street can also be brightened to encourage people to leave the area.

APD Ofc. Charles Bethel spends a little time with one of his 'equine officers.'
APD Ofc. Charles Bethel spends a little time with one of his ‘equine officers.’

Records show Austin Police budget this year for its 13-member Mounted Unit, plus two stable hands, comes in just shy $1.8 million. In FY 2014, APD spent more than $1.9 million, most of which ($839,000) went to salaries and ($24,000) overtime.

By comparison, the slightly smaller Fort Worth Police Department budgets $1.35 million for its 12-member Mounted Unit, which includes an office assistant, a horse trainer and an animal shelter technician — a role carried out by stable hands in the Austin Police Department. APD’s trainer is also an officer.

In contrast, the City of Lubbock’s Mounted Unit is a voluntary, part-time unit.

“Each individual officer provides their own horse and covers all expenses for the horse, including using their own vehicles, fuel, and trailers for any related travel to and from events,” wrote LPD Capt. Roy Bassett in an email.

Lubbock also pays for the vaccinations one time a year for the five horses and will pay for any related vet expenses if a horse is injured in the line of duty. This year, the city allotted $2,500 for veterinarian and miscellaneous supplies.

In fiscal 2014, Austin Police records show more than $26,000 went to surgical or other medical veterinary services – a third more than budgeted. Fortunately in the past couple years, a local vet has offered $8,000 in free eye exams for the unit’s 16 horses. In a larger department like Houston, vet costs can top $60,000 a year.

Dr. Audrey Yu-Speight and her team conduct eye exams on APD horses, May 2015
Dr. Audrey Yu-Speight and her team conducts eye exams on APD horses, May 2015

“It’s basically a public outreach and…our way of giving back to the community,” says Austin-based Dr. Audrey Yu-Speight, whose team of vets spent a recent day at APD’s horse barn near Manor, Texas, looking at the animals’ visual health.

“We’re trying to catch things before they become a problem,” says Yu-Speight. A horse with a cataract for example could not work on a busy Sixth Street at night since it might become spooked without full range of vision.

“They have to be able to see for the safety of everybody,” said Sweeney.

In Texas, other police departments that have Mounted Patrol programs include:

  • Texas Department of Public Safety (four troopers)
  • Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston
  • smaller departments like Lubbock and McKinney

New APD horse barn coming

Over the next couple of years bond dollars for Safety Proposition 16 will pay $3.65 million for a new APD police barn to house, exercise and train the horses as well as offer basic officer accommodations, records show. The barn will be on city-owned land on McAngus Road at SH 130, near the Circuit of the Americas racetrack. Since September 2009, APD has leased space from a landowner near Manor for $4,500 a month. Last year, animal feed and storage costs exceeded $59,500, records show.

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