ST. PETERSBURG — Law enforcement downtown soon may have a new look: cops on horseback.
The city is considering adding a two-horse mounted unit that would patrol the Beach Drive area of downtown on Friday and Saturday nights.
Officials are exploring the possibility of acquiring horses from the Boston Police Department, which is disbanding its 12-horse unit to cut more than $600,000 in expenses and salaries.
"We hope that Boston will donate two of their horses to us," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.
The money to start and run the unit would come from the Police Department's forfeiture and seizure fund. Estimated cost of the horses' upkeep is between $7,000 and $9,000 a year combined.
The fund, which was worth $350,000 as of March 31, also is used by the police for its gun bounty program.
"The money definitely won't be taken from taxpayers' pockets," Proffitt said.
Not everyone likes the idea. Union officials say the city should focus instead on taking care of its officers, who have been asked to take a pay freeze.
"It's always a great thing to add something to the force; however, we are opposed to any new projects until the city honors its current agreement," said Karl Lounge, vice president of the Pinellas County Fraternal Order of Police.
"If you have a huge mortgage on your house, you can't just run out and buy a Ferrari or a horse. You have to pay your debt off first," said Michael Krohn, executive director of the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association.
But the horse is already out of the barn, so to speak. Two officers have been deployed to Boston to check out the department's horses.
In a memorandum to Mayor Rick Baker, police Chief Chuck Harmon wrote that the horses would "increase the visibility of police officers in the downtown area." Despite the union complaints, Baker likes the idea.
"We are talking about a minimal investment compared to what a freeze saves us," he said.
Officers who work with horses say that their four-legged friends are capable of things that would give their two-legged colleagues a hard time.
"People just react differently to an officer on a horse than they do to a foot patrol," said Mike Morrow, supervisor of the Tampa Police Department's mounted unit.
"A mounted patrol can replace anywhere from four to 10 officers on foot in certain situations," he said.
Tampa has six horses in its mounted unit. Pinellas Park police also have a unit of 15 horses, though it relies heavily on volunteers.
"All of our 15 horses are privately owned and leased to the city for a dollar a year," said Capt. Sandy Forseth, the unit's founder.
The patrol is made up of Forseth and another officer, as well as 10 civilian volunteers who have attended a citizens police academy. The volunteers also took a 40-hour mounted patrol course.
"We've had great success using mounted patrols to disperse crowds," said Forseth, who estimates the yearly upkeep costs at about $6,000 a horse.