CLEARWATER — The thick brush in Lake Chautauqua Park that shields ducks, turtles and snakes from predators may be hiding something else.
In a recent undercover operation, Clearwater police arrested three men in the park. Officers were patrolling the area to catch men looking for casual sexual encounters there.
Clearwater police Chief Tony Holloway told the City Council this week that he has a solution: a mounted patrol unit that can navigate the thicket better than officers on foot.
If approved by the council, the mounted unit would consist of reserve Officer Nancy Miller, who retired from the department as a lieutenant in 2009 after 30 years, and volunteer Officer Deborah Storey.
Miller and Storey have already undergone training on their own time, Holloway said.
The city would lease three horses (named Rudy, Garnet and Smokey) owned by the two officers for $1 per horse for a term of three years. The city would agree to pay up to $3,500 a year in veterinary care, but only for injuries sustained in the line of duty.
Equipment start-up costs are estimated at $4,400. Annual operating costs, including additional training, mileage to and from police duties and the possible veterinary care, are estimated to top out at $15,000.
The money would come from forfeiture funds and would not affect the department's operating budget, Holloway said at a council workshop Monday.
Holloway described it as a cost-effective way for police to deal with enforcement issues in the park without moving officers away from other duties. Because Miller is a reserve officer, she has arrest powers like other sworn officers, Holloway said.
"These are volunteers," Holloway said. "They're using their own time to go back there, so I'm not pulling resources off the road."
Mayor Frank Hibbard questioned whether the money was better spent on another all-terrain vehicle.
"I love horses. I think it's really neat on the cool factor, but is there another way to do this that's less expensive … or is the best way to approach this issue?" he asked.
Holloway said he didn't have numbers in front of him regarding the costs of a new ATV, but mentioned that associated expenses would include fuel, storage, maintenance and additional training. The department already has some ATVs but they are assigned to other duties, said police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts.
One of the unit's first tasks will be to ferret out those who are using the lake park, which is on Landmark Drive south of Enterprise Road, for sexual encounters.
In May, city resident Bill Parker told the council that he no longer considered the area safe after his 10-year-old son was twice approached by men in the park. Parker said he regularly sees men drive into the park alone and disappear into the woods.
Holloway sent his anti-crime unit to look into the issue. Between May 25 and June 6, police arrested three men — one who propositioned an undercover officer for sex, another who exposed himself and began masturbating, and a third who rubbed his hand along an officer's pants, according to arrest reports.
Police have made arrests at the park for similar crimes over the years. Police spokeswoman Watts said the behavior is "cyclical."
"Once the word gets out that police have a consistent presence, the criminal activity stops," she said.
Will Perry, 75, who rides his bike in the park daily, said he has heard about men trolling the area and has happened upon "heterosexual" encounters, but doesn't believe the activity is rampant.
The park is "kind of a natural attraction for that type of situation since it's remote and fairly isolated . . . but I have not seen anything grossly overt there," he said.
Police said the horses will give officers better access to the forested areas and should be a deterrent for people who use the park for sexual encounters or other illicit activity, Watts said.
They can also be used for search-and-rescue operations and special details, Holloway said.