BY VENI FIELDS
VIRGINIA BEACH — Between the lettuce and tomatoes she was stacking on a row of turkey on white sandwiches, Kaiya Putman noticed movement outside the plate glass window at the Jersey Mike’s Subs in Landstown.
When she glanced up, what she was seeing took a moment to register.
There were horses on the sidewalk.
“I had to do a double take,” Putman said. “Then I saw it was the police, but you’re used to seeing them down at the beach.”
She said she wanted to run outside and pet the horse.
Outside the store, Master Police Officers “Ric” Sutton and Joel Gough chatted with two women, one behind a wheelchair whose smiling occupant was gently stroking the nose of Sutton’s horse.
“They had just come from the rehab facility across the street,” Sutton said. “They said it made their day.”
They hear that a lot, the officers on Virginia Beach’s Mounted Patrol Unit say, and see the unit’s approachability is a part of its value to the police force.
“In the climate that we are today, it’s very difficult for some people to feel that we’re approachable,” said Master Police Officer Aaron Dove, “but this is that path, and it’s just a great, great feeling to do that. I’ve never seen anybody get upset about the horse. Everybody loves them.”
That approachability is also an adjustment for the members of the unit, said Officer R. Davis, who has been with the department for five years, and graduated the Mounted Patrol Academy with four others in April.
“It’s a lot more interactive than I thought it would be,” Davis said. Coming from the Second Precinct and working nights, she said, “you’re constantly dealing with crime, and then you come to this unit, and it’s horses and happy, and people want to talk to you. You’re not used to people wanting to talk to you on midnight shift when all you’re dealing with are people who are doing something wrong.”
It can take a few months to get used to, she said.
The horses come from backgrounds as varied as the officers who ride them, and must be able to adapt to the job as well, said Sgt. Mary Jo Crooke, supervisor of the eight mounted unit officers, twelve horses and 39-acre grounds between Indian River and Princess Anne roads in Pungo.
Most of the horses are donated, and undergo a 90-day training and trial period, Crooke said. Some don’t adjust, even if they make it through the initial training. In that case, they are sent back to the original owners or to new owners, after the potential homes are inspected to ensure the animals are well taken care of, she said.
While on the grounds of the mounted police unit’s home, much of that care falls to the officers and Crooke, in addition to two animal caretakers, Crooke said.
“It’s not just about I come in, I put on my uniform, I get those shiny boots, I get my horse and I go out there,” she said. “You have to pick stalls. You have to tack your horse. It’s physical, especially during the academy. And this is a working facility. My officers fix fences. They do a lot of things.”
The work isn’t for everyone, Crooke said, and opportunities to apply for the unit are not frequent. Officers must have served three years on the street before applying, and pass physical assessments.
After the ten-week academy training, officers must be selected. If an officer is accepted, the unit requests a three-year commitment. Some stay.
Master Police Officer Chuck Lauchner, the unit’s trainer and farrier, has been with it for 22 years and is retiring next year, and Master Police Officer Julie Hilton has been there for 15 years. Some, like Crooke over her 27-year career with the department, leave for a while and come back.
Experience with horses is not required, nor is age a barrier to applying.
Master Police Officer Mike Reichert retired from 20 years on Navy active duty before joining the police department in 2006. Despite that he had no equestrian expertise, he knew he had to apply, he said.
“The first time I saw the horses, I was just blown away,” Reichert said. “I thought, I have got to do that. That is the coolest thing ever. You go back to the old days, it’s like policing from the very beginning.”
While policing on horseback dates to 18th century Europe, the origin dates of state and national mounted police units in the U.S. differ. The U.S. Park Police Horse Mounted Unit, established in 1934, is one of the oldest in the country, according to the group’s website.
Older still is Richmond’s Mounted Squad, dating to 1894, when “outriders” patrolled areas outside city limits, and is credited in its literature as being the “oldest police unit of its kind in the Commonwealth.”
Virginia Beach’s Mounted Patrol Unit was initiated in 1985, assisted by a group of private citizens, the Friends of the Virginia Beach Police Mounted Patrol, when a need was recognized for horses’ abilities that were uniquely suited to certain kinds of police work.
Search and rescue and crowd control are a part of their duties, as are appearances in ceremonies and parades. But as a specialty unit assigned to the police department’s Special Operations Bureau, Virginia Beach’s Mounted Patrol works alongside other Special Operations divisions, such as SWAT, K-9, and the bomb squad, among others, Crooke said, and events, shopping centers and neighborhoods across all city precincts.
Begun with six horses and one sergeant and operating out of Camp Pendleton, the unit has occupied four previous locations before settling at its current home ten years ago with 14 officers and 20 horses, Crooke said. As some units in other jurisdictions shrink or are disbanded, the Beach’s mounted patrol is currently the largest one operating in the state.
Peggy Nelson, president of the Beach “Friends,” is committed to helping it stay that way, she said. The group’s 25-35 members conduct fundraisers to support the unit’s needs not covered by the city budget, such as special equipment, transportation for a sick or injured horse, or lodging for officers to attend special training or competitions.
“At one point we even bought them lighted pens so they could see to write at night,” she said. “They make the request, and we see what we can do.”
Along with the public’s positive reaction to their appearance, that kind of support adds to the attraction of working in the mounted unit, agreed Sutton and Gough.
After attending a sunset Christmas tree lighting in Pungo astride their hooved partners and preparing to head to a shift outside a shopping mall, Gough echoed a frequent sentiment voiced among the unit’s members.
“It’s the best job in the department,” he said. “It really is.”
© 2016 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC