Detroit Police Mounted Section trots on with 2 new horses

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mirah and Bob are trimmed, trained and trotting through the city as the newest members of the Detroit Police Department.

The two Percheron horses had their manes sheared — or "roached" — and were officially put on active duty last month with the Detroit Police Mounted Section.

Detroiter Duane Jorman pats Detroit's newest equine police officer 'Mirah' on the nose while greeting three Detroit Mounted Police horses and their riders (from left) Cpl. Garnette Steen on Capone, Cpl. Sandra Chavez on Mirah and Cpl Mark Zajac atop Remi on patrol in Campus Martius in downtown Detroit Thursday.

With the unit’s manpower near an all-time low, police officials hope more horses and officers can be added.

The additions bump the number of horses in the unit to eight, although one is still in training at a facility near Grand Blanc. The trainee is temporarily named Big Boy, but when he's ready, he'll also be roached and given a permanent name by the rider assigned to him.

Mounted Section Sgt. David Dehem said he hopes the unit eventually grows to 12 horses, with a few more officers to ride them. The current staffing of eight officers, including supervisors, is among the lowest it's been since the unit was created 127 years ago.

"We can always use more," Dehem said. "My philosophy is, I like to have at least two more horses than manpower because in the summer, the horses get hot, tired, injured, and they get used a lot. Ideally, you like to give them a break and change horses out."

A Wayne State University police officer on loan is among the officers assigned to the unit, Dehem said.

"It gives us an extra body, and he patrols the Wayne State area," he said.

Detroit’s Mounted Section was established in 1893, making it one of the oldest units in the country. It began as an experiment the same year the department started using fingerprint technology. 

During the 1970s, the unit had five barns, 80 officers and more than 60 horses, although, by 1999, the Mounted Section was down to seven officers — the lowest since its inception.

"We could really use more horses and people," said Cpl. Sandra Chavez, who began working with Mirah in May, and was assigned as her rider. It's the southwest Detroit native's first tour as a mounted officer.

“We run into people all the time who say, 'I didn't know you guys still had a mounted unit,’” Chavez said. “With only eight horses, the chances of people seeing them are pretty slim."

Detroit Mounted Police (from left) Cpl. Sandra Chavez riding Mirah, Cpl. Mark Zajac on Remi and Cpl. Garnette Steen riding Capone patrol the downtown Detroit streets near Campus Martius Thursday.

In 2005, former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick disbanded the Mounted Section because of budget cuts. The move was criticized by citizens and law enforcement experts, who said police mounted units are crucial for crowd control and great for public relations.

The Detroit Public Safety Foundation was instrumental in resurrecting the unit in 2009 as a privately funded entity. Funding sources include the Downtown Detroit Partnership and Strategic Staffing Solutions.

Mirah, 12, and Bob, who is between 14-15 years old, were purchased through private grants from the Downtown Detroit Partnership, Detroit Public Safety Foundation and Strategic Staffing Solutions, which began funding the Mounted Section in 2014. Chavez's partner, Cpl. Brian Ross, was assigned Bob, formerly known as Shadow.

Horses typically cost between $5,000 and $10,000 each, said Dehem, adding it can take several months to train them for police duty.

"It varies by horse," he said. "A lot depends on how they come to us. They're already saddle-broke, so they're used to being ridden. From there, we get them used to what we do on the street.

"We do a lot of standing around to monitor crowds and traffic, so we have to get them used to that. Also, you never know if someone is going to set off firecrackers or fire a gun, so we train for that too."

When training newly acquired horses for loud noises, they're put near other horses, "to give them the security of the herd," Dehem said. "We'll have fireworks going off, smoke grenades. At first, they're usually hesitant, but the feeling of security with the group gets them through it, and eventually, they're able to deal with it on their own."

Officers also fire their pistols while sitting on the horses. "That's to get them used to the gunshots at close proximity, so they can hear up close what can happen," Dehem said. "We hope that never happens, but you never know. We have to prepare them for it."

Horses in training sometimes don't want to be apart from their companions, Dehem said.

"They can get herd-bound and don't want to be separated," he said. "But they have to patrol individually, so we'll take them to the park, pair them up with another horse, and then split them up.

Detroit Mounted Police officers, (from left) Cpl. Garnette Steen riding Capone, Cpl. Sandra Chavez riding Mirah and Cpl Mark Zajac on Remi, patrol near Campus Martius in downtown Detroit Thursday.

"That can take some adjusting for the horses; some come from farms where they're never alone, so they have to adapt."

"Training can take from a couple months to several months, depending on the horse," Dehem said. "Some pick it up quickly and aren't fazed by anything. We like the larger horses, the draft breeds, because they have a lot of self-confidence. They know they're big and strong, and don't have to show it. That makes our job easier."

Once a horse completes its training, it's assigned a rider, who gives it a permanent name and roaches it.

"You try to get a sense that an officer gets along with the horse, and looks good on it," Dehem said. "Also, we want to make sure the officer can handle the horse; it can be quite a job getting them ready for the street."

The horses are roached for several reasons, Dehem said.

"It's something to grab onto, and if someone grabs the mane and the horse moves its head, they'll go flying," Dehem said. "So it's for the safety of the people. It's also for ease of grooming; the mane holds a lot of dirt and straw. Once the officer roaches the horse, he or she keeps a ponytail of the mane."

Mirah and Bob were both easy to train, Dehem said. 

"Mirah really picked it up fast, and Bob's also done really well, although he needs some refining," Dehem said. "Bob's a little older than Mirah, and he was kind of set in his ways. He liked being in a corral and not having to work every day. I can't blame him."

Detroit Mounted Police officers, (from left) Cpl. Garnette Steen riding Capone, Cpl. Sandra Chavez riding Mirah and Cpl Mark Zajac on Remi, patrol near Campus Martius in downtown Detroit Thursday.

Chavez said she had to wait before being assigned a horse. "It goes by seniority," she said. "On Jan. 12, I’ll have 22 years in the department, and I have the least amount of time in Mounted. I’m the rookie with 22 years on the job.

"It's not easy to get into Mounted. After 20 years in the department, we can pick pretty much whichever command we want to be assigned to, and those of us who are here want to be here."

While Chavez and Mirah patrolled Campus Martius in downtown Detroit with other mounted officers Thursday, she said a man approached her and said, "you guys just made my day."

"When someone says something like that to us, it really makes us feel great," Chavez said. "We're out here in case of trouble, of course — but if we can make just one person happy, or put a smile on a kid's face, then we feel like we had a good day."