On a Monday morning, I’m off to Swope Park to see a man about a horse.
Sgt. Joey Roberts runs the Kansas City Mounted Patrol, where he and six officers work with nine police horses, making for a very special unit nestled in a big, blue barn.
Their newest horse, Leader, has been working in Kansas City neighborhoods for several months but will make his official debut patrolling Tuesday’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
When I meet this light brown beauty with shaggy bangs, he stretches his neck outside of the stable and takes me by surprise with a kiss. Behind me, Commander and Faulkner are playfully nipping at each other and, at one point, grooming each other. I learn quickly that both like the feel of hands on their manes.
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This is part of what makes police horses so special — connectivity. At a time when tensions between inner city communities and police departments are stifling, mounted patrol officers are a step in the right direction. Cities across the country are strengthening their divisions, Roberts says.
“It’s kind of crazy to think something as simple as a horse can open the door to building respect and trust,” says Roberts, who has been with mounted patrol for eight of its nine years. After almost 18 years on the force, he sees a big difference in how people react to an officer on a horse versus a cop in a car.
“Sometimes people see cops as Robocops, people with no family, no life, no feelings,” he says. “I think the horses kind of humanize us and serve as an icebreaker to have conversations with citizens that otherwise wouldn’t happen.”
For instance, when a cop car is slowly cruising down Independence Avenue, people might get defensive. They probably won’t come out and say hello. But when Roberts and his unit patrol that same neighborhood, kids and adults alike come over to ask questions. They pet the horses. They take pictures. Barriers drop and relationships form.
And that’s the point of mounted patrol.
All nine of the patrol’s horses, as well as the equipment and supplies, have been donated. The nonprofit group Friends of the KC Mounted Patrol (KCMountedPatrol.org) helps raise funds for the unit.
Lead Bank donated the money to purchase Leader, the latest acquisition, so Roberts had the luxury of spending the better part of a year looking for an ideal horse. Leader lived in Jamesport, Mo., and used to escort race horses on and off the track. He’s got the athleticism of a quarter horse but the brawn of a draft horse. He’s the LeBron James of police horses.
The unit’s other horses come from all gallops of life. Like Dan from Iowa, who used to work part time for Des Moines Mounted Patrol.
Not every horse is cut out to do police work. A typical shift is 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (When horses aren’t on duty, they’re out relaxing on the patrol’s six acres at Swope Park.)
A good police horse needs to be brave and calm. Even with training, some of it has to come naturally. It can’t be forced. Donated horses usually come with a 90-day trial period to be sure the fit is right.
The right horse helps the mounted patrol to be a tower of visibility deterring crime, but also an ambassador for the city. Mounted patrol even offers a youth riding program to give kids a positive introduction to police.
Denise Phillips says her son, Darius, 11, loved the program. She is teaching her son to stand up for justice but also to recognize the importance of law enforcement. Whether they are in Squier Park on Troost, on the Plaza or even at a Michael Brown protest, Darius stops to talk to the police. At Starbucks, he goes over to make friends with the cops. And the officers return that love. A lot of them know him by name.
“Mounted patrol is a big piece of nurturing that understanding,” Phillips says. “Darius is never afraid to ask questions. He sees the cops as helpers, and they treat him respectfully and valuably. They have become positive male figures.”
That is exactly what Roberts wants. Just as he makes sure every horse is up to par, he puts a lot into picking personable, open-minded officers for his team.
“I’m a firm believer in building relationships with the community,” Roberts says. “I can’t overstate how big of an impact the horses make in breaking down barriers. With everything that is going on across the country, it is important to focus on building that bridge and establishing an open line of communication.”
Right now, police departments and racial bias dominate conversations nationwide. It’s important not to bury the hope we see in units like mounted patrol. It’s important to ride it like a horse and inspire the herd to follow.
Support a horse, buy a T-Shirt
A new KC pride T-shirt (the “C” is a horseshoe) celebrates Leader joining the Kansas City Mounted Patrol. The shirt, $20, will be for sale at Tuesday’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade at a booth, opening at 10:30 a.m. at 39th and Broadway. (You can also order one by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.) The proceeds will benefit the patrol.