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Crystal River may put officers on horseback

Reactions include queries about the animals in traffic and what to do about their waste.

As the story goes, a bank robber in Fort Lauderdale was trying for his getaway when "Dirty Harry" showed up.

"Dirty Harry" was a horse on patrol in a nearby parking lot. According to the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, the robber took one look at the animal with its mounted officer and gave up. He said he was afraid of the horse.

In another case that has entered the annals of the department's lore, a horse named Nocona got offended when some rowdy drunks began bothering its rider. Charging forward, the horse reportedly head-butted the three, knocking them to the ground and causing them to flee.

The stories may sound a bit cornball, but Crystal River Police Chief James Farley, who commanded mounted horse units for Fort Lauderdale and the Broward County Sheriff's Office, focuses on the serious side.

Horses are an ideal community policing tool, he said. Since last week's City Council meeting, when he told members to expect a detailed proposal for starting a mounted patrol unit in Crystal River when the board meets Feb. 14, there has been no shortage of opinions in the city on his proposal.

Reactions have ranged from surprise to questions about how the animals will fare with U.S. 19 traffic and to the more practical: What about the natural byproducts of the horse patrol on city streets?

"The response of the residents when they see you somewhere is just unbelievable," said Ron Dillon, the owner of Village Inn Family Restaurant and Bakery, who is a former member of the Citrus County Posse and who first raised the idea with one of Farley's officers. "It may sound corny, but everybody loves horses."

As for the waste, all it takes is a portable collapsible shovel, said patrolman Kellie Turcotte, a longtime rider and the only officer so far to volunteer for the proposed unit. "That's what Ocala does with theirs."

Just as bike patrols do, horses can overcome the wall of metal that exists between the public and passing police cruisers, Farley said.

"I've been involved in community policing for a long time and I've got a feel for what works well and what doesn't work well, and I haven't seen anything that works as well to form a bridge between the police and the people we serve as a mounted unit.

"It's going to be like a magnet," he said, confident the idea will become reality. "It's going to draw all ages, both sexes . . . because the people want to reach up and touch the horse and people naturally want to ask questions of the officer and bang, you have a dialogue. And that's what we need."

With help from a couple of officers and pledges from residents, Farley believes the effort is well on its way.

Crystal River residents Steven Lamb and Kennedy Smith have offered to buy two horses, he said. Seminole Feed has pledged free food for the animals, while others are willing to ante up trailers, veterinary services and new shoes courtesy of a local blacksmith.

If the support continues, he said, the program would not cost the city a penny. He also plans to use law enforcement block grant money.

For starters, Farley envisions a specially trained officers corps who would take turns riding their new "vehicles" around town, just as the bike patrol officers do. The horses would be used for crowd control at local festivals and for normal patrolling.

The department's insurance policy would cover any liability, he said.

Under his watch in South Florida, he said horses did wonders for discouraging mischief at shopping malls, and he does not see why they would be less effective at the Crystal River Mall where break-ins are a problem.

"People like horses but they're afraid of horses," Dillon said.

The key is finding a horse that can be trained to be calm but attentive in the city, where car horns and speeding automobiles are part of daily life.

If the council gives the green light, he said he's got his eyes on a training course as early as March.

Turcotte is excited by the possibilities.

"A lot of time people tend to be standoffish to police," she said. "People relate to animals."

Sandra Webb of the Community Policing Consortium in Washington, is not aware of any trend toward combining horse patrols with community policing but sees the potential.