AUSTIN, Texas - Next week, Austin City Council will vote on the fiscal year 2021 budget, including financial cuts to the Austin Police Department.
One of the units several council members are proposing to be eliminated or restructured is mounted patrol. Council members said eliminating mounted patrol would result in cuts of about $2 million to APD.
Saturday night, as protesters filled Congress Avenue, APD’s mounted patrol unit stepped in to help with crowd control.
“So when officers go in to make arrests or they go in to break up fights, we will bring the horses in to provide a barrier around them so they can do whatever they need to do without worry of any of the people in the crowd coming up behind them to do any harmful things to them,” said Sgt. Julie Payne with the mounted patrol unit.
The team of mounted officers is used mainly for crowd control, but the department also turns to them to reopen roads, engage with the community, and even search and rescue operations.
“One well-trained officer on a well-trained horse is equal to 10 officers on foot in a crowd control situation. And we can do that in such a deescalating way. So we can go in and move a crowd, because they can see us when we are eight feet high in the air,” Payne said.
Councilmember Jimmy Flannigan, District 6, one of three council members who included either eliminating or restructuring the mounted unit in their budget proposals, said he isn't sure it's worth the cost.
“The videos and the experiences that I'm hearing from the public, it doesn't seem to be a particularly valuable or useful tool, it seems to more incite confrontation than prevent it,” Flannigan said.
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“So if you look at Saturday night when [protesters] were blocking the crosswalk there, 3rd and Congress, the horses moved in, and they scattered. Not a single use of force,” said Dennis Farris, a retired Austin police officer and board member for the Austin Police Retired Officers Association.
With the use of less-lethal ammunition, like bean bag rounds and tear gas, now banned in crowd control situations, APD has turned to the mounted unit to help clear roads like Congress Avenue when crowds block traffic there.
Flannigan said, instead, officers should let protesters have the street.
“We're seeing decisions being made about protests occurring in a public street and the department deciding that now, this moment, arbitrarily, they can't be in the street anymore. In the middle of a pandemic, where there's no traffic, let them protest in the street. This is the First Amendment and it's public property,” Flannigan said.
Farris said without the horses there, those who want to break the law would basically have free reign to do whatever they want. “What this council is doing is going to make this city much less safe. And it's going to turn it into a dangerous place to be, especially downtown,” said Farris.
Councilmember Leslie Pool has also proposed eliminating mounted patrol in the upcoming city budget. In a statement she writes:
“I think we have a responsibility to get our police force back to their core mission to fight crime and to build relationships in the community.
We need community conversations about how animals are trained and used by our police force, especially in communities of color. This goes for the Mounted Unit and the Interdiction K9 Unit. As we engage folks in this reimagining, we need thoughtful discussion on how – and whether – we move forward with these units.
The changes that I and some of my colleagues are calling for will help achieve efficiencies and promote positive change to the police culture so that every community feels safe. We need to stop diluting our force and distracting our officers with calls for code violations or littering in the park. And we’ll be a stronger and safer community as a result.”