Gradually returning to action, Police Mounted Unit helps enforce the city curfew

A couple of hours before the new Center City curfew morphed from press-conference threat to Friday night reality, dozens of police officers on bicycle, foot and car mustered at Love Park, among other places.

They were there in reaction to bad press and worse situations involving youths running roughshod, often violently.

Before the clock struck 9 p.m., skateboarders and bicyclists were being ordered to stop and just walk on the sidewalk. By morning, an estimated 50 youths would be arrested for curfew-related violations. with another dozen to follow Saturday night into Sunday.

Just a half block up 15th Street on Friday night, near the Market-Frankford El stop escalator and away from the TV cameras, sat Lt. Daniel McCann and three other officers who had also been called to curfew duty. They fielded questions, and got their pictures taken by a curious public.

The Mounted Unit was back on patrol in Philadelphia.

After a long hiatus and a halting rebirth, officers on horseback are part of the Philly police’s crowd-control and crime-prevention strategy again.

After dozen teens congregated atop an escalator, scoped the unusual law-enforcement scene and made their way toward Chestnut Street not so covertly, McCann sent two mounted officers on a patrol lap. 

Within 20 minutes, those teens decided it was best to head back down the escalator in pursuit of freer pastures. People react differently than they would to officers on bike or in cruiser, McCann said, noting “they think ‘maybe I’ll just go now” as a horse approaches.

That little success seemed of secondary interest to passersby who stopped to pet and even feed apples purchased at the nearby 7-11 to McCann’s steed, which is named after fallen police officer John Pawlowski.

McCann drew a comparison between the current mission and the Philadelphia Police Mounted Unit’s 1884 establishment in response to “ruffians, not unlike what may be happening today.”

Seen from a public-safety standpoint as effective for crowd-control, visibility and community outreach, the Mounted Unit has spent the past century-and-a-quarter taking various forms.

It’s been a full-fledged Police Department entity, been folded into the Fairmount Park purview and, in the mid- to late-seventies, boasted an all-time high of 190 horses patrolling in every district, and a fixture at gathering spots like 52nd and Market streets and Kensington and Allegheny avenues. There were stables all across town.

In an indelible Philly image, horses surrounded the Veterans Stadium field in 1980 when Tug McGraw struck out Willie Wilson to secure the Phillies’ first World Series victory. Four years before the Phillies would win their second championship, however, there were just 19 horses left in the unit. The city powers-that-be figured “bikes could do the job,” so the unit was disbanded in 2004.

“When Commissioner Ramsey got here in 2008, he asked, ‘Why don’t we have one? A city this size needs one,'” recalled McCann, who left a Roundhouse position to lead the unit. 

Then, when the economy nearly bottomed out the next year, so did plans to re-establish a 25-horse unit. However, McCann said he was told at Christmastime 2009 that “this is the year we’ll get it back together again.” The Police Foundation did fundraising, the city budgeted some funds, state Sen. Lawrence Farnese sought state grants, others went after Justice Department grants, and Philadelphia Park racetrack donated equipment.

In the time since, the Newark (NJ) Police Department’s Mounted Unit was decommissioned; two of the four horses on Center City duty Friday night came from there.

In the past two years, plans have morphed from perpetually delayed wishes to a pair of trailers transporting horses to and from private stables in Pennypack Park. The horses just moved there from Richboro, Bucks County by way of Ambler two weeks ago. That’s still an hour of driving time away from the Ben Franklin Parkway, where the current four-horse team debuted on a Fourth of July event ultimately drawn into “flash mob” anxiety.

McCann said he’d gotten numerous calls for his horses to show up at events, including National Night Out. People had the impression that there were more than four on the Parkway that night. In all, there are currently nine Mounted Unit horses, another two being trained and room for one more until that location is filled to capacity. Ramsey’s plan calls for 25-30 horses, eventually.

Given McCann’s desire to have all their operations under one roof, the unit will have to find a new home before it can be fully reestablished.

Plans to build a new Mounted Unit headquarters near the Chamounix Equestrian Center in Fairmount Park near East Falls appear to be dead, thanks both to cost and permit issues. There are talks to restore existing but run-down stables in lieu of building new, already looking at more than a half dozen sites, which could enable doubling the size of the unit within the next year.

“Once we’re up-and-running, we’ll be able to go into high-crime areas to patrol,” McCann said, who maintained residents in high-crime areas may be more willing to talk to Mounted Patrol officers than those cruising by in a patrol car. “As we grow incrementally, we’ll deploy incrementally.”

Around the time McCann was talking about the Mounted Unit’s future, Ramsey arrived a half-block away where the curfew bicycle and patrol officers had mustered. There, he noted that something he called for years ago was “just getting up and running” but his plans held firm.

“This is not just something for Center City or Fairmount Park,” Ramsey said. “We’ll build up and get into the neighborhoods. Crowd control. Visibility. This is an effective crime-fighting tool.”

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