Cops on Horses: Old-fashioned police work in Palm Beach County
Deputy Brian Daly of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Mounted Unit (on Valor), talks with shoppers Tatiana Baldwin, her son Shahid Quraeshi and Natalie Barato while patrollingh the Southern Palm Crossing Plaza in Royal Palm Beach during the holiday shopping season. (Mark Randall, Sun Sentinel / December 17, 2012)
ROYAL PALM BEACH ——If left to his own devices, Amadeus would eat grass all day.
But the1,600-pound mixed-breed horse isn't allowed to eat at work. If he dips his head down to snack on a patch of grass while on patrol at a palm-dotted plaza, Sgt. John Howley applies some pressure with his leg, and Amadeus knows: that means "nay."
Amadeus listens, raising his bitted mouth upright again, and waits for his orders.
That's because the seven horses in the mounted unit of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office have been trained to listen better than their farm-raised counterparts.
Sometimes, the lives and safety of people depend on the horse's ability to listen.
Deputies typically use horses like Amadeus, or his 1,800-pound Clydesdale buddy, Valor, for holiday patrols at shopping centers, crowd control at parades or presidential debates, or searches for fugitives or missing persons.
Their gargantuan size and limber build, maintained by 20 pounds of hay a day, give horses – and, in turn, deputies – many advantages.
"I'm not a big guy," said Sgt. Howley, who normally stands 5 feet, 9 inches tall, "but up here, I'm a giant."
A 10-foot man in sunglasses strapped with a bullet-proof vest and pistol, Howley said his appearance tends to make a person think twice about causing trouble between cars in parking lots.
"We're more of a crime deterrent," Howley said.
Sitting that high off the ground, mounted deputies can see much more than deputies sitting in patrol cars or patrolling on foot. While searching for missing people, the horses stay behind the sniffing K-9 units. The deputies atop the horses then scan the area for clues or movement.
"We see things people on the ground can't see," Howley said. "We go places people or K-9s can't go."
Despite their towering size, horses can travel paths not easily taken – like canals, where the waters tend to run too deep for dogs or deputies to safely navigate. Horses, their legs longer than most 5th graders, don't have much trouble in most canals.
Cops riding horses might sound old-fashioned. That's because it is.
"It goes back to antiquity," Howley said. "I don't think it'll ever happen, but it would be a very sad day if we ever stopped using horses."
Howley said he'd trade helicopters for horses any day. Horses have personalities.
Take Valor, a Clydesdale mare: she tends to be a bruising drama queen, throwing her weight around when she gets antsy. Deputies don't complain much about that: she's likes to move around and work. She also loves dogs.
Amadeus doesn't have a problem standing still too long – but he thinks Valor is his girlfriend.
"It's like a third-grade romance," said Deputy Brian Daly, atop Valor.
Passers-by, those men, women and children the mounted unit protect, are quite smitten, too. Several times a day, the proof reappears: a young child pulling a mother across the parking lot to pet the towering, yet gentle, animals.
"People love them," Daly said, and Valor dipped down her head, near the grass, letting a little girl rub her nose.
HORSES OF THE SHERIFF'S OFFICE
Lance (Percheron gelding)
Arthur (Percheron gelding)
Merannus (Danish Warmblood gelding)
Alibi (Belgium Draft mare)
Zip (Thoroughbred gelding)
Valor (Clydesdale mare)