HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — More than 15 years ago, officers with the Hendersonville Police Department decided to saddle up to help keep crime at bay.
Now, they are one of three full-time mounted patrols left in the state. In Middle Tennessee, Hendersonville and the Metro Nashville Police Department, which started its unit more than a decade before Hendersonville, account for the majority of mounted police officers.
While the Memphis Police Department disbanded its unit in the early 2000s, it was restarted years later and has continued to grow over the past decade. Other police agencies have part-time mounted officers, but the units are scarcer than they used to be.
“A lot of times administrators of police departments and cities just look at it as ‘We could take these six guys off of horses and put them in cars.’ That’s not always a benefit,” said Officer Jeff Duren, who has been with Hendersonville’s Mounted Police Unit since 2011.
The first use of mounted patrols dates back to the 18th century when horses were used to navigate poor roads and rural areas. In modern day, their purpose is more complex, but Duren argues just as important.
“I know Charleston, South Carolina, they did away with theirs and immediately regretted it. Then they had to rebuild it,” Duren said. “Other places that have done away with it, they’re seeing a spike in crime afterwards. It is part of the times, but it’s not just that.”
‘It’s almost like learning the job over again’
Between Hendersonville and Nashville there are currently nine full-time mounted patrol officers.
Hendersonville has a bit smaller unit with three total officers. While some officers rode horses part-time in the 90s, the police department established a full-time mounted patrol in 2008 to help patrol the extensive parks system in Hendersonville.
In Nashville, Sgt. Vickie Dills, who joined the mounted patrol in 2019 after years of working in narcotics, said the unit was initially formed to improve community engagement. When Nissan Stadium was built, the patrol became an even bigger asset.
“While the Titan’s games are being played, even today, there’s always mounted patrol officers patrolling the parking lot,” she said.
All officers and horses go through extensive training, with the HPD requiring at least five years of prior experience as a police officer. Hendersonville Master Patrol Officer John Newberry had more than 30 years of policing experience before he joined the mounted patrol in 2016.
While Duren had been riding horses all his life, Newberry was newer to the saddle.
“It’s almost like learning the job over again,” Newberry said. “It’s just a different tool. Once you get it, it clicks in. It’s like second nature, but it takes a while to do that. We do defensive tactics on the horse. We train for all of that stuff.”
Mounted officers do everything from the saddle, whether that’s making an arrest or writing a ticket, Duren said. That means they also have to train the horses to not be afraid in those situations. Duren said it can take up to a year before a horse is ready to be a police horse.
“You’re having to control each one of those feet, what the horse’s mind is thinking, making sure that he’s not scared,” he said. “The fact of training as a police officer and then training as a mounted officer is just another step you have to take.”
However, the work they’ve put in with their horses Dusty, Rango, Sunny and the newest addition, Beau, has paid off.
How mounted patrols make a difference
Duren said their impact is not always apparent when looking at data on arrests, but the mounted patrol serves an important role in prevention and community interactions.
“We know we’re making a difference,” he said. “We get told all the time by people, ‘We’re so thankful for you all being out here, and we love seeing you guys out here.’ I spent 15 years in a patrol car before I started this, and no one ever asked if they could pet my patrol car.”
As of January, Duren said there are nearly six miles of trails that run through Hendersonville, and the trails are continuing to be expanded. Along those trails are several popular parks. On any given day, Duren said there may be 4,000 to 5,000 people at Drakes Creek Park.
“That’s our main focus because we can ride those trails all day long,” Duren said. “There’s joggers, bikers, walkers. We want to make sure those people are just as safe as anybody that’s on the street or at shopping centers.”
Simply having officers on the trails works as a deterrent, Duren said. When residents started expressing concerns about people experiencing homelessness approaching them on the trails, mounted officers were the first to try to tackle the issue.
“I took it on as a humanitarian deal, going out and talking to these people, ‘What can we do to help you not live in the woods? What can we do to help you not live under this bridge?’,” Duren said. “Once we started that it immediately just disappeared.”
In the more urban areas of Nashville, Dills said the mounted patrol focuses on neighborhoods where issues like burglaries are occurring. Often the horses can provide advantages over a patrol car. Dills said a prime example happened at Percy Warner Park a few weeks ago.
“We were standing there, and I saw a guy, he was actually looking into car windows of trucks and trailers parked in the equestrian lot,” she said. “Had I not been on the horse I would have never been able to see him because of the height advantage and being able to see over the vehicles.”
During the spring, summer and fall months, Dills said Nashville’s mounted patrol heads to Broadway every Friday and Saturday night to help keep the peace. Fights are a common issue, but Dills said many scuffles end “just from shock of seeing the horse.”
Their presence is also important at shopping centers, especially during the holidays when there tends to be an uptick in auto burglaries and shoplifting. Duren said Hendersonville’s mounted patrol typically shifts focus from the trails to shopping centers in November.
“There’s a lot of shopping centers and retail fraud, shoplifters, they run out and we’ve stopped some of them,” Newberry said.
Almost 85% drop in crime in shopping centers
Since the mounted patrol began stationing its trailer in spots like the Streets of Indian Lake, a popular shopping center in Hendersonville, the city has noticed an almost 85% drop in crime.
“As far as the modern-day aspects, I think that’s a big part of it. You can’t be just sitting at the barn waiting for a crowd control situation,” Duren said. “You’ve got to be proactive, being seen, being visible, having contact and making yourself a valuable part of what the city does.”
That visibility also encourages positive community interactions— a vital aspect of modern-day policing. Duren said being on horseback creates a “different atmosphere” where people will walk up to them and spark up a conversation.
“That horse automatically builds a bridge between us and people who normally wouldn’t engage with police,” Dills said. “I joke quite frequently because I spent so much of my career working narcotics and people ran from me… now people run to me.”
Part of that community engagement also takes place at events, which are the backbone of many mounted patrols.
“We have events in the park with people that have come from all over the country, and they have told us ‘We love the fact that there’s horses out here in the park and we’re going to come back because of it’,” Duren said.
Last year, Hendersonville’s mounted patrol participated in 104 special events throughout Sumner County. Officers also joined the Metro Nashville Police Department’s mounted patrol for a few events in Nashville.
Duren expects to participate in even more events in 2023. From a safety standpoint, being on horseback during events not only allows officers to move through crowds faster than a bicycle or car, but it also provides a better vantage point in large crowds.
“The elevation is a key factor. We’re sitting eight feet tall,” Duren said. “We can see over the cars; we can see over the crowds. We can see if somebody needs help. They can see us too. That’s another big plus as far as being on a horse.”
‘Our administrators understand the value that we bring’
While many mounted patrol units have been disbanded in the 20th century, in Hendersonville, Duren said officers have continued to receive strong support from the city.
“We’ve been lucky,” he said. “Our administrators understand the value that we bring. They’ll tell you we account for over 90% of the positive comments they receive through city hall and through their offices.”
Like their counterparts in Hendersonville, Dills said MNPD’s mounted patrol has also seen strong support from the police chief and mayor.
“I know for a fact that Chief Drake loves the mounted patrol unit,” Dills said. “I believe we’re one of his favorite units on the department because of that element of community engagement, and that’s one of his three pillars.”
Hendersonville’s unit keeps costs down through fundraisers and as of January, Duren said all of their horses had been donated by private citizens. The police department budgets for feed and veterinary bills, but the officers take care of most of the work around the barn.
“We save a lot of gas, I’ll tell you that,” Duren said. “They couldn’t look at us and say we’re costing them money on this because it would cost more if we were in a car.”
“Gas is expensive, but I don’t know that you can put a price on the effect the horses have on the community,” Dills added. “There’s just a world of opportunity there that horse creates that will allow us to reach a part of the community that typically doesn’t want anything to do with the police.”
Often times Duren and Newberry come in on their days off to take care of the horses. But Newberry said that aspect of the job hardly feels like work. Part of what he believes has made Hendersonville’s mounted patrol successful is the officers’ love for the job.
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“We just love our jobs. Both of us do, and I think that helps with a positive attitude with the people. I think that carries over to the people,” Newberry said. “We enjoy it and I think people see that. We don’t try to be something we’re not.”
Even though some may consider mounted patrols outdated, Duren said he hopes police agencies will continue to see their value. Growing Hendersonville’s mounted patrol would help them patrol seven days a week without straining the city’s overtime budget.
“We have to make ourselves useful within the city to keep doing what we’re doing, and we both love what we do,” Duren said. “We’ve both been on patrol, and I’ve done about everything in police work, and this is by far the best thing I’ve ever done.”