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The Hazy Future of the 10-Foot Cops

The mounted police unit is the SFPD’s public relations secret weapon. But for how much longer?

Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about Golden Gate Park that San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2017 issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.


Five years ago
, after more than 20 years as a San Francisco police officer, mostly as a member of the SWAT team, Officer Robert Toy transferred to the San Francisco Police Mounted Unit. “Riding off into the sunset,” he says with a smile, “seemed like a good way to end a career.”

That career will end next year. In 2018, Toy, who is 53, as well as his fellow officer Joe Boyle, 54, and possibly the unit’s sergeant, Jennifer Dudoroff, 52, will be retiring. After that, only three officers will be left to staff the 143-year-old mounted unit—with no replacements ready to jump into the saddle. The timing of the departures is forcing some to ask whether the concept of mounted police itself is riding off into the sunset.

While equine-mounted police still have some advantages—“We can go deeper into the woods of Golden Gate Park than any other unit can go,” Dudoroff says—that’s not really why the department keeps the unit around. (After all, the unit makes only four or five arrests per month.) Basically, it exists to provide a four-legged PR boost to a department that needs as much good juju as it can get. On a recent Thursday, plenty of impromptu visitors dropped by the unit’s stable just south of Spreckels Lake to see the horses. Posing for photos and shaking hands is part of the job here: On the beat, Toy and his horse, 17-year-old Braveheart, regularly mingle with tourists or stop by a school to pass out silver “Mounted Unit” stickers.

And to be clear, the public loves the horses: In 1988, 86 percent of voters opted to keep the department in the face of potential cuts. “We provide good PR for the department,” Boyle says.

Whether SFPD higher-ups continue to consider that a justification for maintaining the outfit remains to be seen. With half of the tiny unit’s manpower scheduled to retire and no officers having yet passed the internal tests required for mounted service, just how much attention the unit will receive in future budgets is unknown. Current mounted cops can’t help noticing that new chief William Scott hasn’t yet dropped by the stable.

“I really hope that Chief Scott makes his way here to see what we’re all about,” Dudoroff says. “We will never get more riders unless he gives the OK.”

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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