Horses are starting to wear blue again. "We're sending all of those satellites up to do deep probes of space," says county Sheriff's Lt. Eugene S. Beggs, "but we're returning the horse to the street to do police work."
The animals are indispensable for searches in rugged terrain, natural crowd controllers--who is going to disobey a 1,000-pound horse?--and a highlight of any parade.
And the way Beggs and his colleagues talk about it, putting police on horseback is as much a trend as equipping squad cars with computers.
The Los Angeles Police Department brought horses back in 1981, forming a mounted unit made up of about 50 volunteer, horse-owning officers. "It's the best way for us to go because of personnel costs and demand for services," says Capt. John Higgins, commander of the Metro Division, which has charge of the unit.
Three years ago, the Sheriff's Department--which always has had a mounted posse made up of reserve personnel who work as needed--started a special mounted enforcement unit of about 25 officers. Beggs, who commands the unit, said horsemen have more flexibility than foot officers, and they give the department a definite public relations advantage. "People aren't hostile toward horses," he said.
There is even a "shoot a police horse, go to jail" law, which the state Legislature passed before the Los Angeles Olympic Games, during which horses were used extensively for crowd control. It grew out of concern that people might be inclined to pelt horses with bottles or rocks--or worse.
In the South Bay, Palos Verdes Estates is about to join the trend by forming a six-member mounted police reserve. Officials hope it will be ready in time to make its debut at the city marathon run on June 7.
John E. Dollarhide, public safety director, said the main function of the horse patrol will be to control crowds and add a touch of glamour to public events. "It's a public relations thing," he said.
But the riders will be called into service if there are natural disasters, such as high winds that knock down trees and block roads in the city. They also will do periodic sweeps of the 1,000 acres of parks and rugged hillsides and canyons.
"I hate to say it," Dollarhide said, "but we run across a body out there now and then, and marijuana plants. We find that all the time."
For several years, the Torrance Police Department had a mounted unit, but it separated from the city and now functions as a charitable organization called the Torrance Mounted Posse. It maintains its own stable and clubhouse on Maple Avenue near the county courthouse.
Morris Stewart, manager of a Torrance manufacturing firm and a leader of the 30-member posse, said the group holds an annual rodeo and rides in about half a dozen parades a year.
"It's a group of guys who own horses and enjoy riding and working to help their fellow citizens by raising money," Stewart said. The posse is now supporting the child abuse prevention project of the Torrance Exchange Club.
Police officials say the advantages of the police horse are limited costs, efficiency of the animal, and the "good-will ambassador" roles that horses play wherever they go.
Riders supply their own horses and equipment--police agencies sometimes do pay for uniforms--and truck their animals to patrol sites. Reserve officers receive no compensation--or a token $1 a year in the case of the 227 members of the sheriff's posse--and regular officers are drawn from other duties and paid their regular salaries to work the horse details. Horse patrols are covered by standard city liability insurance.
Dollarhide said the mounted patrol in Palos Verdes Estates will cost the city nothing. The riders will not be paid and the Palos Verdes Kiwanis Club is donating $600 to cover pay for special equipment such as flags and banners for parades.
The police horse's greatest talent lies in crowd control. "He takes the place of 10 officers," said Capt. Stan Backman, commander of the sheriff reserve forces bureau.
Beggs put it this way: "People see a horse approaching them and they say, 'Yes, I think we'll be very happy to move back'."
The Olympics provided a great showcase for the horse, where they were used for crowd control at the Coliseum, along the route of the marathon, at cycling events in Carson and at water polo in Malibu.
"Our concerns were the huge crowds, and we wanted to maximize the number of officers needed for that, and still provide a safe environment," said Higgins.
He said an officer on horseback whom people could talk to was preferable to a "patrol car that whizzed by." And, he said, mounted police could look over the heads of people and deter crime.
The LAPD and the sheriff now regularly use horses to patrol Coliseum events, Chinese New Year's, the Santa Claus Lane parade, Fourth of July beach parties, major river beds and shopping malls during the holidays. They'll be on duty this weekend in East Los Angeles for Cinco de Mayo.
When the LAPD was battling streetwalkers in Hollywood, the horses were called in. "They made it difficult for people to stop and conduct business," Higgins said.
The men train their animals on a regular basis, taking them through obstacle courses and subjecting them to loud noises, including gunfire and firecrackers, so they will be ready for work in crowds.
But by far the most important ingredient in horse patrols is the spirit of the horsemen, both regular officers and reserves, who are willing to truck their animals 50 miles at their own expense to report for duty.
"They do this for the love of horses and to do something for their community through law enforcement," said Backman.
Palos Verdes Estates already has more applicants that it needs. They include two residents, police officers and firefighters from other South Bay cities, two park rangers and an attorney.