To most of the world, the image of two cowboy-hat-wearing police officers riding down the street on their horses might seem quintessentially Texan.
Where else but the Lone Star state can you see such a sight?
But to islanders, a picture of mounted Galveston police officers arresting a man in the city’s downtown raised a different question: Since when are there mounted patrol officers downtown?
The answer, it appears, is not very long.
Mounted police officers have patrolled downtown Galveston only five times in five months, a city spokeswoman said last week.
“They started performing mount patrol function in April,” city spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said. “They are not currently performing these functions.”
The reason for that is the arrest Aug. 3 of Donald Neely, 43, on a charge of criminal trespassing. During the arrest Neely, who is black and mentally ill, was handcuffed, attached to a line held by a mounted white police officer and led along a downtown street. The spectacle was enough to inspire several people to record and post images of the arrest to social media sites, which thrust Galveston into an international spotlight and sparked conversations about race relations, mental health care and community policing.
Earlier this month, Galveston Police Chief Vernon Hale said the controversy over Neely’s arrest came at a time when the police department was just beginning to formalize plans for regular mounted police officers.
“They came to me with several proposals, and I said ‘OK, after Mardi Gras we can start introducing the mounted unit, but we’ve got to do it right,’” Hale said during a community meeting at the Old Central Community Center on Aug. 6. “In those discussions, I had the foresight to say, they don’t get any rewards until they get some formalized training. And we did that.”
Some officers consider being part of a mounted patrol a perk.
Critics and defenders of the officers have often focused on the issue of training, and whether the officers who arrested Neely were trained to arrest him in the manner they did.
Hale has said the officers followed their training when it came to restraining Neely, but used poor judgment when deciding to walk him about four blocks to a staging area.
NO WRITTEN PROCEDURE
At the community meeting, Hale also took himself to task, saying he lacked the foresight to put proper controls on his officers for the way they should act while patrolling on horseback.
A formal, written standard operating procedure for the mounted unit was being written when the Neely photos went viral, Barnett said. The procedures were being drafted as part of the city’s collective bargaining negotiations with the Galveston Municipal Police Association, Barnett said. The bargaining began in July.
The two officers have not been disciplined for their actions while arresting Neely.
Texas Rangers, after investigating Neely’s arrest, on Friday announced there was no reason to pursue a criminal investigation into what happened. The Galveston County Sheriff’s Office is still conducting an administrative investigation into the officers’ actions.
AN UNOFFICIAL UNIT
Galveston founded its mounted patrol unit in 1988.
The unit operated full-time until about 1992, when it was cut because of budget concerns.
At that time, the city reached an arrangement with its horse-owning officers. Officers could continue to use horses in some police work, provided the officers own the horses and equipment, and maintain responsibility for their feed and veterinarian care.
Over the past 30 years, the mounted patrol mostly has consisted of between six and 10 officers, officials said. The officers are most often seen at large events, such as Mardi Gras, and ceremonial functions like police funerals and city parades.
Officers are sometimes assigned to patrol the island’s busy beaches during the summer.
Having a mounted patrol as a regular function downtown began only in April and it appears the decision to deploy was based on expected crowds.
“It was a busy weekend with many visitors expected on the island,” Barnett said. “The mounted patrol provides enhanced visibility and greater tourist contact.”
It’s unclear what contact, if any, the officers or Neely had with tourists on Aug. 3.
COMMUNITY RELATIONS TOOL?
Security camera images from The Park Board of Trustees building, 601 23rd St., obtained by The Daily News show Neely sleeping or resting in a shaded area behind the building, away from sidewalks and passersby. He had been at the building for more than an hour before being approached and arrested by the officers.
The building was closed at the time Neely was arrested, though at least one person appeared to come and go from the office while Neely was there. Galveston police officers had a standing order to arrest Neely for trespassing if they saw him on park board property, officials have said.
Multiple witnesses watched, photographed and recorded Neely’s arrest as he was led from the Park Board building to the staging area.
In modern times, mounted units often are seen as public relations boosters for police departments, said Michael Roth, a professor of criminal justice and policing history at Sam Houston State University.
“They’re very good at community relations,” Roth said. “A person is much more likely to come up to somebody on a horse than in a police car.”
They’re also frequently one of the first features that are cut from police budgets during lean times, he said.
As part of Hale’s efforts to formalize the mounted unit, officers were required to take a training course earlier this year, officials said.
Four of the officers received their training from Constable Deputy Danny Sendejas, an employee of Galveston County Precinct 2 Constable Jimmy Fullen.
In an email to The Daily News, Sendejas said four Galveston officers attended the 40-hour training course. The officers who completed the training course receive a certificate of completion from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, he said.
“The mounted patrol training is based on safety, knowledge of the horse from care to mounting a horse equipped for duty, sensory and obstacle training to aid in bomb proofing the horse, troop formation and crowd control,” Sendejas said.
Officers are taught how to attach a safety device to people who are being moved, Sendejas said. He couldn’t comment on whether the officers who arrested Neely did the procedure correctly, he said.
Asked whether there were circumstances in which he would recommend officers not move a person, Sendejas said: “Officers are already trained to use judgment.”
In the wider world, Galveston’s officers have gotten mixed support over whether their actions were appropriate.
A widely circulated TV news report from Houston TV station KPRC quoted a Galveston man who said he and another, unnamed person were detained on the beach and restrained by a mounted officer in the same manner as Neely, and that he didn’t feel the police treated him badly. The man said he was not booked for his arrest.
Other pictures of people being arrested my mounted officers in other cities also have circulated in support of the officers.
City officials haven’t claimed the way Neely was restrained was unusual, but the police department doesn’t document instances in which people are escorted by mounted officers, Barnett said.
“It seems all escorts were done in this manner whenever we could not get to a unit,” Barnett said.
Hale suspended the practice on Aug. 5, after the picture of Neely’s arrest began circulating on social media.
Other people outside of Galveston have been more critical of the practice. On Aug. 7, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said officers in his city were required to dismount during an arrest and walk with an arrestee to a transport van.
Before making his initial statements about the arrest, Hale said he reached out to other police chiefs and experts he knew to ask them about mounted arrest techniques. Asked by The Daily News to identify the people Hale talked to, the city declined.
“The chief does not have permission to use their names, similar to a paper not commenting on sources,” Barnett said.
It might not be surprising to hear some police departments deny they have the same policy as Galveston, or quietly review their own procedures to make sure they don’t come under the same kind of negative attention in the future, Roth said.
“I’ve never seen this,” Roth said. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I’m sure any department that does use this keeps it on the QT.”