Though not in command positions, Police Officers Matt Graham and Shawn Dugan occupy the two highest seats in the Newport Beach Police Department.
As the department’s first horse-mounted officers, they agree that being well above the crowds provides an important perspective to their police work.
Uniquely, unlike full time, tax-supported mounted patrols in such cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, and New York, Graham and Dugan bought their own horses and support them at an out-of-pocket average expense of $400 a month. That includes boarding, feed costs, shoes, vaccination, tack, and grooming supplies. And they’re glad to do it.
Both men spent many months seeking out and “interviewing” the perfect steeds. As in detective work, they employed everything from Internet research to following up on leads, with lots of “just plain driving around” until they narrowed their candidates to eight horses.
Then came the initial tests to see if those horses could become cops. This mini-exam included firing cap guns near their heads, and
spinning Hula Hoops in front and to the sides to see if the horses could tolerate noise and distraction, and displayed good disposition. Only two, Pistol and Levi, passed muster and could be considered potentially bomb proof.
Next came boot camp, where training is demanding for both horse and rider. Graham, who owns Pistol, and Dugan, who owns Levi, worked untold hours with their horses to achieve high performance standards established by the Orange County Regional Mounted Enforcement Unit – the organization of county departments with mounted patrols.
In essence, a patrol horse must become desensitized to the urban environment, which includes any noise imaginable to a disturbing array of movement and sights.
The officers try to prepare their horses for as many exigencies as possible. This begins with the their demonstrated ability to manage the horses with such basic maneuvers as turns, back ups, front and rear quarter moves, and side passes, which means moving laterally to either side without inching forward or backward.
Then the training begins.
A horse must remain calm, cool and controlled under such sensory chaos as flashing lights and sirens, flares in various patterns, spitting smoke machines, blaring horns, whooshing noises, gunshots fired around their heads, and surging and screaming throngs: in essence, chaos to the nth degree.
“A lot depends on the horse, and not every horse can do this,” Graham said.
Now that Pistol and Levi are on the payroll, they train regularly to maintain their equine edge. Dugan and Graham work with their horses three days a week, on their own time. They team up to train monthly with the 38 other mounted units in the county, from such agencies as Anaheim, Buena Park, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, and the County Sheriff’s Department. Their coordinated exercises come in handy during various large crowd turnouts at holidays, festivals and concerts throughout the year, when mounted teams from the region assist each other in overseeing the movement and behavior of the masses.
At last Fourth of July in Newport Beach, a collective of 20 mounted law enforcement officers dispersed to watch over the array of celebrants.
It’s estimated that one horse in a crowd-control assignment is the equivalent of 10 officers on the ground – with the advantages of elevation to see over cars, higher police profile (literally), mobility if necessary, and deterrence. Additionally, horses effortlessly succeed in a most difficult human skill: public relations.
“They’re great for meet and greet,” Dugan enthused. “When we walk on the beach, we can’t move 10 feet without a bunch of kids coming up to pet them; it’s a big ice breaker.” Dugan’s regular assignment is in the saddle of a motorcycle. “Nobody has ever asked to pet my motorcycle,” he joked.
Horses have their own natural exhaust system, which can’t be controlled by simply turning off the ignition. To that end, while on patrol, Officers Graham and Dugan pack in their saddlebags a Pooper Scooper, dustpan, and bags in which to remove any leave-behinds. Horses aren’t the only ones practicing good public relations.
Arguably, horses were the first “four-wheel drive vehicles” in police work. They seldom break down, don’t get flats, are citizen friendly, and are truly fuel-efficient.