Horses afford police high visibility
Sometimes the Ocean City Police Department benefits from its horses merely being there.
The large animals are nothing if not easy to pick out in a large crowd, and their visibility provides the officers mounted on them with the ability to see and address crimes unfolding or progressing from on high. Occasionally, that visibility deters potential perpetrators from even acting in the first place.
"The horses are really a presence that can't be missed or overlooked," says OCPD Chief Bernadette DiPino. "They're one of those visible signs that our department is there in and of itself."
They're a great public relations tool for the OCPD as well, according to Pfc. Chip Green, who has served on the mounted unit for the past two-and-a-half years. He answered an interdepartmental expression of interest for a new mounted officer and was selected for training. Since then, he says he's formed a close bond with Benson, the 5-year-old horse he usually rides.
People will often approach Green or one of the other two officers working on the unit simply to socially interact with the horses. Other times, they'll approach the officers to alert them of some sort of wrongdoing, like last summer when a man told Green a Boardwalk storefront was selling K-2, the synthetic drug made illegal in town weeks before.
"We were able to report that, and eventually I believe (officers) went in and they were caught," Green said.
The unit's four horses see their responsibilities vary based on a number of variables, like the time of year or the resort's schedule of events for that day. And there are, of course, other unforeseen events that lead the department to call its equestrians into town from the private farm outside the resort they call home.
They've been used to help find missing children, to represent the department in parades and at special events, and for various types of crowd control and disbursement, among other duties.
"They're outstanding for crowd control," DiPino said, noting the horses are a less-intimidating way to help manage groups of people than other methods used in the past by some forces, like water hoses or dogs. "It's very difficult to argue with a horse."
Green said one horse is equal to about 10 officers when attempting crowd control.
Cpl. Al Custer and Pfc. J.P. Zurla comprise the unit along with Green and the four horses. Each officer has a horse they ride most often, and the department keeps one reserve animal. They're looking to add one more rider and one more horse sometime in the near future, Green said.
The horses and their riders go through extensive training before they can be put onto street patrol together, and they undergo regular training on a weekly or monthly basis that is worked into the officers' schedules, according to OCPD spokeswoman Jessica Waters.
The horses begin their training at a farm in Carroll County, where staff who specialize in training and selling police horses select mounts they think would be a good fit for the OCPD. The department purchases horses, usually for $7,000 to $10,000, and the animals come to town for a trial, to see if they're OCPD material.
"We look a lot at how they react to new things," said Waters. The horses have to be able to acclimate and handle the various types of crowds one finds in Ocean City during the summer months, something not dealt with often at a farm setting.
In the coming months, during peak tourism season, unit members will be seen mostly on the Boardwalk and in the downtown area, but there's no hesitation to send them elsewhere if they're needed, whether it's for a trip to Seacrets at closing time or to help patrol a neighborhood up north.
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