Officers Find PR, Policing Benefits in Mounted Unit
But Patrol Will Face Criticism in Approps Season
When it comes to interacting with the public, officers in the Capitol Police Department’s mounted unit seem to have a distinct advantage over their colleagues.
“You can’t pet a motorcar, but you can pet a horse,” quipped Sgt. Kathleen Bignotti, who leads the seven-officer unit along with Sgt. Charles Johnson.
While the law enforcement agency’s fledgling mounted unit, which will mark its first anniversary next month, takes on the same duties as the department’s other divisions, Capitol Police officials acknowledge the unit has become an especially useful tool for interacting with the public.
Against the background of increased security across Capitol Hill, Bignotti asserted, the unit shows the community a “softer” side of the department. “It’s a goodwill ambassador for people visiting the nation’s Capitol from all around the world,” she said.
But despite that potential, Johnson is quick to note that the benefit is secondary to the agency’s priorities.
“The public relations is collateral to our official duties,” Johnson said.
Even that dual purpose, however, might not be enough to ensure the fledgling unit’s uncertain future.
The program faced significant criticism from a handful of House lawmakers during the fiscal 2005 appropriations process, but it survived with the support of then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), who chaired the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch.
But at least one House critic has vowed to oppose the program’s continuation, raising concerns over its costs including waste removal — which is contracted to the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District — and housing for the animals.
“Now that Sen. Campbell is gone we can look more coldly at its effect on protecting against terrorism,” said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a frequent critic of the program who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and introduced an amendment last session to eliminate the unit.
Capitol Police officials have previously estimated the department must spend $85,000 to $100,000 annually to maintain the division.
Defending the unit, Capitol Police officials often stress the ability of the mounted patrols to effectively control large crowds, such as those at rallies often held in Upper Senate Park, while also handling basic police work.
The unit, which generally patrols only during daylight hours with the exception of special events, monitors the Capitol grounds by dividing the area into four quadrants, similar to the department’s patrol division.
“We do a lot of the same basic jobs our motor units do,” Johnson said. That includes issuing tickets for various infractions of the law, directing traffic, blocking roadways around the Capitol, or even providing backup to patrol vehicles.
But the horses give the officers more flexibility than working from a cruiser, Bignotti added, noting that the mounted officers have the advantage of height, as well as the ability to access areas vehicles cannot.
“It’s easy coverage. You can go areas a motor unit cannot go,” she said. The unit is also used to direct crowds exiting buildings for fire drills and other large-scale evacuations.
Unlike the other officers, however, the mounted unit is unlikely to make an actual arrest — in part because the officers would be unable to transport a suspect to the department’s processing facility — although they could initiate proceedings for another officer.
Still, the sergeants assert the unit’s high visibility makes its extremely effective in deterring crimes.
“As a mounted unit, you are a super big deterrent,” Bignotti said.
That mounted unit’s visibility also makes it a “beacon” to those seeking help, Bignotti said, such as in the case of lost children. “People can see the officers in an emergency.”
Much like the agency’s K-9 unit, the officers are assigned to individual animals and are responsible for their care.
“You really want to match the rider to the horse,” Johnson said. “It’s really worked out good with the officers.”
The units five horses — named Justice, Honor, Freedom, Patriot and Tribute — are housed 30 minutes southeast of Washington at a Bureau of Land Management facility in Lorton, Va. (Although the unit began with six horses, one animal was retired after it was deemed too skittish for the assignment.)
Officers groom the animals themselves, Johnson noted, allowing them to look for injuries and keep the horses in good condition.
“It’s an integral part of knowing the horse,” Johnson said. The officers, some of whom had little experience with horses before being selected for the unit, learned to care for the animals in part during a 10-week training course with the U.S. Park Police last spring.
“They’re a team,” Johnson added. “That’s your partner.”