I don’t think New York needs horses pulling carriages through Central Park; other people disagree. But does the city need mounted police officers? A Daily News reporter posed this question to the mayor yesterday (at a press conference about an unrelated matter), presumably trying to trap the mayor in a contradiction, perhaps even make a hypocrite of him! Instead, de Blasio wriggled out of it with mastered sophistry, Gothamist reported.
“Apples and oranges. Can I use apples and oranges with a horse analogy? It’s… you know, obviously, NYPD, I have immense respect for what they do to keep us safe. And the police horses have been a part of that. And that is something that’s about the public’s vital interest. So I think it’s a very different reality than something, you know, that’s about tourism.” Well, ok, sure: there’s a difference between public safety and leisure, and if you believe that police horses are a part of the NYPD’s toolkit to maintain order in the city, then defending them would be different from defending those that allow out-of-towners to indulge a romantic fantasy.
But do police horses really keep us safe? “Most horses are used for patrol and crowd-control purposes, such as keeping Occupied Wall Street protesters at bay during mass demonstrations. Or they are simply deployed to trot around Rockefeller Center or on the Coney Island Boardwalk, to keep the peace,” the Daily News reported in 2011. They don’t really have much of a practical purpose, which is why cities across the country began eliminating mounted police in the last five years, as budgets tightened. The Times reported:
Romantics have a nostalgic attachment to police horses, and many police officials value them, saying that when dealing with crowds, one mounted officer is as effective as 7 to 10 officers on foot. They are highly visible, these officials say, and can deter crime, and their popularity with the public is a welcome change from the mistrust that many departments battle. But others see the horses as a costly bit of sentimentality, and as departments make previously unthinkable cuts, like furloughing and laying off police officers, they are re-evaluating the role of the police horse in the 21st century.
Police horses are certainly scary when you’re an individual trying to exercise your constitutionally guaranteed right to peacefully assemble and redress grievances; any protester who has been offered two paths, one toward a police horse and one away from it, has faced a simple choice, especially as the police have been known to deploy horses as weapons. The Nation described one protest near Times Square in 2011:
A high-ranking officer on foot suddenly removed one section of the barricade and guided a horse directly into the crowd. The mounted officer spurred his horse forward, ramming demonstrators, and the scene quickly descended into chaos… people were clearly frightened for their safety: horses can inflict serious harm, especially in volatile, high-density situations.
(After an RNC protest in 2003 and a lawsuit from the NYCLU, the NYPD settled and agreed to change the way it used police horses: “to stop sending [them] into crowds without a warning and a chance to disperse, to ensure that pens do not become traps,” according to an NYCLU press release. But there’s a difference between what the NYPD does and what the NYPD is allowed to do—a gap that became particularly wide during the Occupy Wall Street protests.)
Bill de Blasio was an early public supporter of Occupy Wall Street; he spoke at Zuccotti as public advocate in October 2011 when Bloomberg threatened to end the protests, calling OWS a “heartfelt movement that’s speaking to what people are feeling all over this country,” and he praised the protests in a press release on their second anniversary—when he was the Democratic candidate for mayor.
Serendipitously, a mounted officer was in Times Square right when Faisal Shahzad tried to car-bomb it; his ability to see the smoke above the crowd helped lead to the area’s rapid evacuation. But that one incident does not make a credible argument for the city’s maintaining a mounted unit. Really, the only thing the unit has been used for in recent memory is intimidating and attacking protesters, keeping the city safe from people they didn’t keeping safe from; if horses are a tool for keeping the city safe, they’re right up there with pepper spray, batons and motorized scooters—all of which were used to injure and incapacitate demonstrators—except they’re more expensive. And, you know, they’re also sentient beings that maybe sometimes don’t want to charge into groups of screaming people. If the mayor was serious in his support for the movement, and for all protest movements like it, he should phase out the department’s horses because the city doesn’t really need such to maintain such a barbaric weapons system.
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