I asked Sergeant Bret Righthouse about the bad old days, back in 1994, before a cadre of mounted San Diego Police Department officers began routinely patrolling Balboa Park. Transients and illegal aliens had set up permanent encampments back then. Some had built huts on the rooftops of buildings in the park’s central mesa. Illicit sexual activity was rampant, along with drug sales, in the brushy hillsides of the west mesa. Discarded syringes littered the playgrounds, and car theft rings abounded. “It was honestly to the point where I wouldn’t bring my family here,” Righthouse recalled. “Maybe you’d go to a museum for an hour or two, but it wasn’t a park you could just walk in and enjoy.”
When a 24-year-old actor was killed in a drive-by shooting one night as he strolled with his girlfriend across the Laurel Street Bridge, public anxiety skyrocketed. So the police department decided to beef up the horse-patrol unit that had been established in 1983 but had shrunk to almost nothing by the beginning of the ’90s. Righthouse joined the squad then; in its expanded form, it included two sergeants and a dozen officers. Working two shifts a day, seven days a week, the equestrian teams roamed the park’s roads and pathways from 7:00 in the morning until 1:00 a.m., confronting criminals, arresting and rearresting them. Soon the park’s resident scofflaws tired of the routine and moved out. “Basically, we decimated the crime,” Righthouse said.
This is a fitting time for reminiscence because the horse-patrol unit will soon cease to exist, a victim of the current efforts to eliminate the City’s massive budget deficit. Although the unit’s numbers over the past few years have dwindled, department higher-ups have calculated that some $243,000 in operating expenses can be saved by getting rid of the horses. That figure includes such items as feed and vet bills and the 3.5 percent bonus earned by the seven remaining mounted officers. (It doesn’t include their salaries. The base pay for experienced police officers in the City of San Diego ranges from $63,048 to $76,200 per year.) The four men and two women will be reassigned to other jobs within the department.
As of last week, all the tack and other gear at the unit’s headquarters in Gold Gulch had been inventoried and packed up. The eight horses were confined to pens in back of the police barn, their fates undecided. Righthouse was expecting to get word to put them up for auction, using an online auction service, where each animal probably would fetch $2000 to $2500, if previous auction prices were a guide. But Righthouse still had not received orders for how to dispose of the horses or the equestrian equipment. Although the sergeant and his officers had requested that they be allowed to acquire their equine partners for a fair-market price, instead of seeing them auctioned off to strangers, Righthouse didn’t sound optimistic that the request would be granted. “To the City, the horses are just like filing cabinets.”
Righthouse expressed no bitterness about any of this. Instead, he sounded grateful for the experiences he’d had working in the unit over the years. He recalled how the early dramatic results in Balboa Park soon caught the attention of police in other parts of the city and how the equestrian unit had begun making sorties into other troubled areas. The unit streamlined the steps it took to enlist its aid. “All you had to do was make a phone call,” Righthouse said. Little by little, police supervisors throughout the city began to recognize that cops on horseback could be used “like a citywide strike force.” In summer, the teams patrolled both Mission Beach and Pacific Beach, intervening in one rowdy scuffle after another. Righthouse says that during one long Fourth of July at Mission Beach, the officers stopped counting how many fights they had broken up when the number reached about 100. “The horses would literally run from one problem group to another.” Officers were adept at handcuffing suspects from the saddle. They carried the same weapons as a regular patrol officer. One time the troublemakers consisted of a drunken beach crowd intent upon overturning a lifeguard vehicle. Righthouse says the horseback officers dispersed the mob with ease.
Using the horses for such tasks required that the animals be desensitized to sights and noises that would make most horses rear up or stampede: traffic, trolleys, crowds, waving flags, flashing lights, flares, blaring horns, and so much more. “A horse is a flight animal,” Righthouse points out. For the police work, that most basic instinct had to be overridden. The animals had to learn to walk up and down curbs painted a variety of colors, all of which might pose a different kind of danger — from a horse’s perspective. They had to ignore manhole covers, climb flights of stairs, negotiate narrow passageways — without balking or panicking. Crowd control long ago was added to the unit’s routine duties, and to handle that, the horses had to learn how to synchronize their movements with other horse teams as well as with officers on foot, who might be aiming — and using — riot guns. “People think there aren’t a lot of political demonstrations in San Diego, but we’ve worked hundreds of protests. We’ve literally lined up and pushed crowds out of the way while people threw rocks and bottles at us.”
Righthouse says his experiences showed him that “ten horses could move a crowd that it would take 100 foot cops to do. And the amount of force necessary to move a crowd with a horse is far less than that required by foot officers. We move very slowly; we don’t even touch people.” A horse and rider decked out in riot gear evokes primordial fears of being trampled. Even agitated, aggressive humans edge away.
The sergeant and his officers came to believe that the mere presence of the equestrian teams could stop trouble from materializing. Righthouse cites the example of the PB Block Party. After it was plagued by fights and other violence one year, the horse unit was asked to help police at the succeeding year’s event. But that block party turned out to be quiet, and the next year the equestrian officers weren’t invited back. In the absence of the mounted teams, the crowd was fractious again. So the horse units returned the year after that — and once again things were so quiet it appeared as if they were unnecessary. Righthouse also notes that the infamous Labor Day 2008 melee in Pacific Beach occurred on the only day that entire summer when the mounted unit didn’t work the beach. (Because it was a holiday, the officers would have qualified for extra pay — an expense the department decided to forgo.)
As intimidating as a mounted officer can be, the irony that still seems to amaze Righthouse is that many people feel “the horse is the most approachable, lovable thing.” That startled him in his early years on a police horse. Parolees whom he’d sent to jail would walk up to him and his hackles would rise. Bad guys don’t usually approach cops. But as often as not, the guy would want to know if it was okay for him to pet the horse. Righthouse says sometimes it was okay with him.