When Dallas Police Sgt. Victor Renteria heads out for patrol, he rides on the back of Earthquake, one of the mounted unit’s tallest horses. Earthquake is just over 18 hands – about six feet tall – towering above any pedestrian they pass. Renteria says one mounted officer is equivalent to 10 regular officers.
Renteria and others with the unit say horses provide them with more mobility, a vantage point they otherwise wouldn’t have, and an increased sense of police presence when they’re out patrolling city streets. The horses are particularly useful in crowd-control situations.
He also says the horses help with community relations.
“People who don’t really like the police, they still come up and talk to us,” Renteria said. “You can build relationships with the community, especially those communities that don’t like the police very much.”
But others aren't so sure, saying they worry about the treatment of the horses, as well as the negative impact the units may have on communities.
The unit was established in 1982, originally starting as a pilot program when mounted officers were sent into high-burglary areas. After the program proved successful, the permanent unit was created. According to the department’s website, the mounted unit helped reduce the number of offenses and was well received by the community.
These days, mounted officers are deployed throughout Dallas based on crime trends and requests from patrol divisions.
Walking at about 3 to 5 mph, the horses are primarily used as “patrol vehicles” to be deployed on back streets, alleys, apartment complexes and other areas not as accessible to a police car.
Renteria started at DPD in 2004. He worked in the Southeast patrol for nearly 10 years. He was later promoted to sergeant of the Police Athletic League, where he would mentor kids in different sports. PAL decided to start a horsemanship program. While Renteria had plenty of experience riding horses, he didn’t have any formal training.
Renteria approached DPD’s mounted unit to see if they would put him through their training so he could have some credentials to bring to the PAL, and they agreed.
The seven-week training is rigorous. Officers with a senior corporal ranking or higher can apply, but Renteria says many of them quit in training. During the first week, officers are primarily learning about the unit and the horses. Officers spend week two learning how to ride the horses without saddles, bareback. The bareback week teaches officers to find their seat on a horse, laying a foundation for the officers so they’re stronger riders when the saddles are introduced.
Then, there’s stress training. Fireworks simulate the sound of gunshots, sirens ring, flames crackle and the air is filled with smoke.
“We throw a ton of stuff at these officers and horses to make sure that they’re capable of riding these horses through chaos,” Renteria said.
The horses are mostly draft (large horses bred to be working animals). They're usually a solid color and must be at least 16 hands. Temperament is the top priority when it comes to choosing the horses. They can’t have extremely “hot,” or nervous horses “because we still have to control these animals,” Renteria said.
They are often purchased from people or donated if they meet the requirements and pass an exam from a vet. A horse can be brought on at DPD as young as 4 years old and serve into its 20s.
Right before Renteria finished the training, the sergeant at the time, Michael Hunter, asked if he’d be willing to serve as interim sergeant. Renteria has been there ever since.
Council Member Lee Kleinman has had a beef specifically with the mounted unit for a few years now. It's become an annual effort for him to try to get rid of it. He said his second budget year was when he began focusing on the unit.
“Anybody that’s done anything in the business world knows that when you do a budget, you always look to the big buckets first. And, of course, the biggest bucket we have is public safety,” Kleinman said.
To him, out of all DPD does, the mounted unit is probably one of the least necessary.
"I kind of felt like if we couldn’t even shave that off of our budget, there’s no way we’re going to get the DPD budget under control,” he said.
Then, he began focusing on the history of the mounted patrols and the similarities to slave patrols, its effect on communities and the role they play in over-policing and police brutality.
Kleinman cited an incident that occurred last year in Texas when a mounted officer led a Black man bound by rope down a street in Galveston.
“It became beyond a budget issue for me,” he said. “It made me realize that that’s just part of the institutional racism that we have in our police department.”
Mounted units have also been scrutinized for increasing tensions during protests and riots. An investigation was launched in Houston after a video showed a mounted patrol officer trample a protester during a George Floyd protest, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Renteria said he hasn’t heard much criticism about the unit since he's been assigned to it. The criticism he has heard is in regard to the treatment of the horses. People are worried that the horses are being abused. But, he contends they take very good care of them.
He said officers are well trained, they never abuse the animals, and they have never used the horses to violate anyone’s rights or take advantage of any situation.
“We use these horses to build a relationship with the community and, when necessary, to present barriers,” he said.
The horses are kept in a barn at Fair Park, where members of the community can see them, how they're being treated and speak with officers about the unit. DPD recently extended an invitation to the mayor and the rest of the city council to tour the mounted unit facilities next month.
Senior Cpls. Scott Jay with the mounted unit said he thinks if people came out to the barn, or saw the work the officers do firsthand, they might have a change of heart about their unit. Jay said it's upsetting to hear city officials try to get rid of the unit. "[Kleinman] wants to equate us to slave drivers and all this other stuff, but that's not what we are seen as by the public that he claims to represent," Jay said.
John LaRue, owner of Deep Ellum Art Company, said he appreciates the mounted unit's presence around his business.
"It doesn’t get much more Texas than police on horseback in Deep Ellum, which I’m sure the tourists dig," he said. "I've never seen them do anything other than patrol, but also never seen anyone stupid enough to act up around a mounted unit. It seems like a pretty effective deterrent for shit-headery."
Shenita Cleveland, a Dallas community activist, said it's time to make some very difficult and unpopular decisions when it comes to eliminating and replacing programs within DPD and other departments across this country. The mounted unit is one of those programs, Cleveland said.
"It’s time for true 21st-century policing, by replacing these units with something more valuable – officers whose primary role is to enhance the relationship and interactions with minority communities and the homeless population," she said.
For 14 horses, the bedding, vet bills, feed, supplement and hay costs about the department around $125,000, Renteria said.
Whenever cities are looking for cuts to public safety budgets, mounted units are often the first to go, Mitchel P. Roth, a historian who specializes in law enforcement at Sam Houston State University, told Bloomberg.
For example, the Great Recession led to cuts of mounted units in Boston, Charleston, South Carolina, Newark, New Jersey, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. More recently, Las Vegas, Kansas City, Missouri, and St. Paul, Minnesota disbanded their departments' mounted units after facing budgetary restraints.
And as public pressure mounts on city officials to decrease police funding, more of these units may be disbanded.
This year, the Baltimore City Council voted to disband its mounted unit, one of the oldest and continuously run units in the country. The Kansas City police department announced this year it was reassigning mounted unit officers to allow eight more detectives to be assigned to the homicide unit citing the city’s high number of homicides and violent crimes rates.
Kleinman's attempt to disband the unit, backed by council member Adam Bazaldua, failed to get the support it needed during recent budget talks. But even if such a proposal was to get enough backing from the City Council, disbanding these units still won't be simple. Upon a possible disbanding, there's the question of what to do with the horses.
Horses discharged from their law enforcement duties have been sent to rescue farms, donated to therapy organizations, auctioned to private farms or returned to their original donors, according to Bloomberg. Some of them just get sent to other departments.
Renteria said the mounted unit is the most visible patrol the department has. He said it's a police presence without the threat of arrest. "That is what the community wants," he said. With the mounted unit, "that is what they get."
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