It smells like shit in this police station, and here in Pennypack Park officers wouldn’t take that as an insult. The stench is unavoidable, given the station is situated above a stable. Besides, they’re used to it.
They form the Philadelphia Police Department’s mounted patrol unit. They are the cops who ride horses that tend to show up at major events or when protests get out of hand. Given their position atop a 1,000-pound animal that can move swiftly through a crowd, people tend to pay attention.
Odd as it may seem for police to ride horseback in the 21st century in America’s fifth-largest city, the 12 officers in charge of the department’s 17 horses see their job as something necessary and unique. They believe they can make Philadelphia police a little more accessible at a time when relations with the community here and elsewhere around the country have been on the decline.
“We’ve got to bridge the gap,” says officer Chan Nheb. “If you don’t love the cop, fine, but you love the horse.”
First, back to the station. This is not your usual police hangout. It’s tucked away up a twisting Pennypack Park road demarcated by an “Emergency Vehicles Only: Don’t Enter” sign. Next to the station/stable is an area for the horses to exercise.
In the stable, officers are joined by civilian staff who help take care of the horses and clean the stable. An adjoining room features dozens of saddles and stirrups. Outside the stable, there’s a giant tube used for feeding horses, and a waste area they used to call the “shit pit.”
At the beginning of my interview with Lieutenant Dan McCann, commanding officer of the mounted unit, a dog walks in begging for something to eat.
“I don’t have anything, Sammie,”McCann says. “See, nothing in there. Nothing in there.”
She’s the station’s dog, a mostly-hound mutt, part of a longtime Philadelphia mounted unit tradition stipulating every police stable have a female dog to hold in check the horses, who are all male geldings. Pennypack Park is Philly’s lone police stable, but the city used to have many more.
In the 1970s, under the command of Frank Rizzo, the police restored a mounted unit tradition that dated back to Philadelphia’s pre-car days. There were six stables and some 190 horses at the peak. McCann has a framed photo in his office of those glory days, dozens of horses and officers standing in formation in Fairmount Park.
He began leading the unit in 2003, but the program was cut for budget reasons the next year. All the horses were sold away. McCann landed back with Johnson, working in the criminal intelligence unit. When Commissioner Charles Ramsey was appointed by Michael Nutter in 2008, he approached McCann in his first year about bringing back the mounted unit. Funding problems held the idea back, until 2011, when state money and donations poured in from Comcast, 7-Eleven and Verizon, helping jumpstart the program with McCann in charge.
Officers who join the mounted unit must complete a months-long training session. They have to try riding all the horses and go through an equestrian-style course with gates and jumps and shooting blanks while riding. The horses are named after officers who have been killed in the line of duty.
You’ve probably seen the horses around the city at major events. Two of them patrol the tailgating lots at every home Phillies game, and they broke up the loitering revelers after the Villanova parade in April. They were positioned on MLK Drive to keep a close watch on the Parkway when the pope was in town.
In October 2014, when UberX launched, two horses were on hand in Old City for the Uber stings. The mounted unit was not enforcing the ban on UberX. They had been assigned to protect the PPA officers in case they needed it.
But the mounted unit is not limited to special events or Uber stings. The horses could be anywhere. Usually, at least two mounted unit horse officers are on patrol at a given time. They’re often assigned to Philadelphia’s most crime-infested neighborhoods as a way to restore order.
On top of a horse, the officers can see everything going on outside on a block. And everyone on the block can see the officers. They might not care about a police car or an officer on foot, but the horses get their attention. The hope is the illegal activity will cease or move to another area, where other officers might be waiting.
Many times people from the neighborhood approach the mounted officers. They pet the horse and stay and talk, allowing the officers to gather intel.
“In a community where nobody likes cops, if 50 people are there,” says Chan Nheb, “half will like the horse or have never seen a horse.”
One time, Nheb pulled over a driver who was going the wrong way on a one-way street. He’d never seen someone so cooperative. The driver even asked if he could take a picture with Nheb’s horse.
Manuel Lorenzo was once stationed at Fifth and Wyoming with other officers and going after a man with a gun. The man saw the horse, snuck behind a car and relinquished his weapon.
Going forward, the plan is to increase the number of Philadelphia police horses to 22, but first the mounted unit needs more officers. With recruit numbers declining overall, it has been difficult to find personnel. McCann believes the program will stick around, though, seeing it as a necessary component for Philadelphia’s police force.
“You’ve got beat cops and bike cops,” McCann says. “We’re literally the cavalry.”