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Will a City Council Runoff Decide the Future of Dallas Police's Mounted Unit?

To District 11 City Council member Lee Kleinman, out of all the Dallas Police Department does, the mounted unit is probably one of the least necessary. Will his successor continue his fight to disband the unit?EXPAND
To District 11 City Council member Lee Kleinman, out of all the Dallas Police Department does, the mounted unit is probably one of the least necessary. Will his successor continue his fight to disband the unit?
Jacob Vaughn
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For years, District 11 City Council member Lee Kleinman has been trying to eliminate the Dallas Police Department’s mounted unit. He feels it’s a racist waste of taxpayer money.

At the barn at Fair Park where the mounted unit is stationed, horse hooves clap against the concrete underneath them as officers brush and clean the 6-foot-tall chargers. Some officers resent Kleinman for his longtime fight to get rid of them. They seemed relieved this is his last term.

Still, they could be a target for whoever fills that council seat next. The District 11 City Council race is in a runoff between Barry Wernick, a local attorney, and Jaynie Schultz, former city plan commissioner for the district. Election day for the runoffs is June 5.

To Kleinman, out of all DPD does, the mounted unit is 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.

It's more than a budget issue for him. He began focusing on the history of the mounted patrols, their similarities to slave patrols, its effect on communities and the role they play in over-policing and police brutality. He cites 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 made me realize that that’s just part of the institutional racism that we have in our police department,” he said.

Established in 1982, the unit originally started as a pilot program when mounted officers were sent into high-burglary areas. The permanent unit was created after the program proved successful. 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. While Kleinman looks at the unit as a tool of oppression that has no place in 21st century policing, officers say they have a strategic advantage on horseback and they help build relationships in communities.

Senior Cpl. Scott Jay with the mounted unit said it's upsetting to hear city officials try to get rid of them.

"[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. 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.

The outgoing councilman has endorsed Schultz as his replacement, but she hasn't taken a hard stance either way.

For her part, Schultz said she’s not yet sure how to feel about the mounted unit. She's lived in and around the district most of her life and has heard from a few voters about it, a couple of them cops, but said there hasn’t been a general consensus. Schultz wants to hear what the new police chief, Eddie Garcia, thinks about the unit to inform her opinion on it.

She’s more focused on other issues facing the district. Having served District 11 on the plan commission for six years, one of her goals is securing development in the area. She (and just about everyone else) also want to lower crime rates, and tackle panhandling and homelessness in the city.

Her opponent, Wernick, is adamant about keeping the unit, and he has said he'd never vote to cut police funding. Wernick first considered running last summer because of crime. He opposed the council's vote to cut DPD’s overtime budget, calling it “defunding the police.” Endorsed by the Dallas Police Association, Wernick said, "If the horses had a vote, I’d like to think I’d get their endorsement too.

"Why would we take away a tool that is not only extremely effective in crowd control situations but also brings the police and the community together?" Wernick asked. "At a time when there is growing public sentiment against our police due in large part because of false narratives pushed by activists and media outlets, this is one of the last things we should ever think about cutting."

Once the city’s public safety is under control, he said it can start working on things like repairing infrastructure and homelessness.

Whenever cities look to trim the fat in public safety budgets, mounted units are often the first to go. During the Great Recession, for example, several police departments across the country disbanded their mounted units. Kleinman, meanwhile, has had no luck in Dallas. During the last budget cycle, Kleinman's effort to disband was only backed by Adam Bazaldua, the council member for District 7.

It's unclear who, if anyone, will carry Kleinman's torch, but a Texas bill could take it out of the city's hands altogether. House Bill 1900 aims to punish cities with more than 250,000 residents if they cut police funding. Kleinman said he suspects if another Dallas city official does try to disband the unit, it could trigger recourse from the state, though Kleinman doesn't suspect either candidate will go down that path.

Voters can also cast their ballots early between May 24 and June 1, with the exception of Memorial Day.

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