How some cops rein in trouble

Pinellas Park's horse patrol, like the sheriff's bike brigade, finds many mounted advantages.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published December 15, 2007

For years, Pinellas Park officials dreamed of having hordes of shoppers come to the former ParkSide mall.

They've gotten their wish as shoppers, diners, families and teens crowd what is now Shoppes at Park Place.

But the crowds have brought problems as well as prosperity, and the city has had to call in the horses.

The police horse patrol comes to the shopping mecca most Fridays to move teenagers along and keep them from blocking doorways and starting the occasional fight.

Pinellas Park has the only horse patrol in the county, but it's not the only agency that uses alternative forms of transportation to fight crime.

The Pinellas County sheriff, for example, has a bike patrol. That's something Seminole, which contracts with the sheriff for police services, has found to be handy because the bad guys don't expect cops on bikes.

"They're looking for the cruisers," Deputy Beverly Ireland said. Ireland is one of two community policing deputies the sheriff has assigned to Seminole. Ireland and Deputy David Disano spend at least one day a week on the bikes patrolling Seminole Mall, the city parks, the Target shopping center and the Pinellas Trail, among other locations.

While the bike patrol relies a lot on being quiet and unexpected, the horses are impossible to miss as they tower over the cars and crowds.

That's the point: A cop on horseback can see farther than one on foot or in a car. Their presence acts as a warning that the police are watching.

And, if there's trouble, crowds will move out of the way of a 900-plus-pound animal faster than they would for a lone cop on foot.

That has come in handy at the Shoppes at Park Place, where hundreds of teens go to the movies and then just hang around. Until the horse patrol began policing the area this year, the police had received complaints from retailers who saw business fall off because kids were blocking the way to stores. And fights would sometimes break out.

The horses came in to help move the crowds along and prevent clumps of kids from gathering and causing trouble. It has worked so well that these days, the kids mostly move out of the way when they see the horses coming, said Capt. Sandy Forseth, the department spokesman and head of the horse patrol.

The animals have been equally effective at city events. Police Officer Patti Fiedler said she was on horseback patrol when a fight broke out in the middle of a crowd at the city's Puerto Rican festival.

Because Fiedler was above the crowd, she saw the fracas begin and was able to push through the crowd and snatch away one of the combatants without dismounting.

Fiedler says she has also yanked people out of cars while remaining on her horse. Patrol members are trained to never get off their horses.

Most are volunteers

Pinellas Park's horse squad is made up mostly of civilian volunteers. Even the police officer patrol members are essentially volunteers because they are not assigned to horseback during their normal working hours.

They, and the horses, undergo rigorous training that is designed to teach the horses to stay calm no matter what's happening around them - whether it's gunshots and sirens or milling crowds and angry people.

Similarly, members of the sheriff's bike patrol undergo specialized 40-hour training that includes learning to shoot a gun from their bicycles.

They also learn to ride their bikes down stairs, jump curbs and use the bikes to help defend themselves against an attacker. They have to pedal 3 miles, jump off their bikes and start running to mimic a pursuit.

"You've got to know how you're going to feel," Disano said.

Friendlier than cruiser

As effective as bikes and horses are in fighting crime, they have another plus: They're great PR.

Kids, and adults, who see the horses come over to pet them. Sometimes they bring treats, although the horses are not allowed to eat while on duty.

Similarly, the bikes allow the deputies to get close to people and talk to them. The anonymity and aloofness of a deputy in a cruiser is gone.

Both patrols give folks a chance to meet law enforcement personnel on a friendlier, more casual level.

That's something both the Pinellas Park police and the Pinellas County sheriff take advantage of.

The horses march in parades and went to school for the Great American Teach-In. The riders willingly chat with admirers and children who are eager to pet a horse.

Disano and Ireland are also quick to wave, smile and stop to chat. The two carry coupons for Slurpees that they hand out to kids to show that deputies are okay and are the ones to go to in times of trouble.

It's a formula that Hernan Cortez appreciated. Cortez was shopping at Seminole Mall the day after Thanksgiving. One of his children got a Slurpee coupon.

"It was great," Cortez said of the encounter. "It makes the community (feel) pretty safe."