They wake up at the first sign of dawn, brave the bustling streets and intersections and use hand signals to direct traffic and radar guns to target speeders for up to 16 hours day. That’s a day in the life of Sarasota’s mounted police officers.
It’s just past 8 a.m. on a Thursday, and Sgt. Chris Laster and Deputy Sean Brophy have already fed and watered the six thoroughbreds and one draft horse that live at the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Mounted Patrol barn, in Nokomis.
Before the officers leave the lush green acres, though, there’s still more work to do. Stalls must be mucked, tack oiled, boots shined and horses bathed. Ticket printers must be stowed in saddlebags. The refrigerator must be stocked with Gatorade. And just after the horses are scrubbed down, Brophy will grab a hair pick, stand near the tail end of the on-duty horses and comb their coats into a checkerboard pattern. Why? It looks pretty.
“Horses are our No. 1 PR,” Laster says as he watches Brophy, who has been with the mounted patrol for two years. “They are a great bridge between law enforcement and the public.”
Today something is amiss. Laster, who also serves as the mounted unit’s supervisor and trainer of mounted operations, must remove, repair and reattach a horseshoe to the hoof of a 14-year-old thoroughbred named Valor, because the shoe has shifted out of place. He props Valor’s hoof onto a cone and gives him a five-minute pedicure with a nail file the size of a ruler.
The officers then load Valor and Patriot into the trailer and set out for a day of work. Brophy rides in the passenger seat and keeps up-to-date with police alerts while Laster drives the truck and pops fire Jolly Ranchers in his mouth even though it is 90 degrees.
First stop: Jacaranda Boulevard. The officers mount the thoroughbreds and find a shady spot near the road. Then Laster raises his radar gun — which can clock two cars at the same time from at least a mile-and-a-half away — and starts pulling over speeding drivers.
“We’re at least 10 feet tall when we’re riding a horse,” Laster says. “People can see us from a distance and will always stop when they see a horse.”
Seven tickets, two warnings and one prescription drug search later, it is time to break for lunch, and that means prime window seating and friendly smiles at Cracker Barrel. After 45 minutes, the officers cruise out to Nokomis Beach, where they search for sunbathers who may have brought their dogs along for a day in the sun.
“We come out and ask people if they know it’s against the law to bring their animal onto the beach,” Laster says. “It’s always fun to see their reaction when we ride up on horseback.”
By the numbers
1962 — Year the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Mounted Patrol unit started
2005 — Year the mounted patrol was deployed to Gulfport, Miss., in response to Hurricane Katrina
2007 — Year Sarasota hosted the Police Olympics
288 — Hours of additional training required before an officer is authorized to patrol from horseback
65 — Percentage of crime reduction that national studies show in areas where mounted patrol is used regularly
10 — Height in feet of a mounted patrol officer with his horse
7 — Number of horses living at the Nokomis barn
2 — Years a deputy must be with Sheriff’s Office before he can apply to the mounted patrol unit
1 — Minute it takes to print a ticket on horseback
1 — Number of full-time mounted patrol officers