The Minneapolis City Council defunded mounted patrol last year. The unit still exists.

By: - September 20, 2021 6:00 am

Minneapolis police officers patrol Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis on September 15, 2020. Photo by Chad Davis.

In December 2020, after a flurry of amendments and hours of heated debate over the police department’s budget, the Minneapolis City Council voted 11-2 to cut funding for the mounted patrol unit.

The amount was small — just $230,000 of the police department’s roughly $165 million budget — and it passed without much discussion as part of a larger effort to shift $7.7 million from the police department to other city departments like the Office of Violence Prevention.

After a failed attempt to put dismantling and replacing the police department on the 2020 ballot, the budget debate represented the first chance the City Council had since the murder of George Floyd to enact changes to a department that it otherwise has no authority over.

The move didn’t eliminate the two full-time staff positions, it just zeroed out funding for contractual services associated with boarding and caring for the city’s dozen horses.

But the police department didn’t get rid of its horses.

Many weekend nights the Minneapolis Police Department continues to send out officers on horseback downtown when the bars close or during sports events for crowd control.

“While the City Council voted to defund the horses who support our mounted patrol work, MPD operational considerations reside within the executive branch of Minneapolis local government,” Mayor Jacob Frey and Police Chief Medaria Arradondo wrote in a statement to the Reformer.

The decision to keep the horses despite the council’s wishes illustrates the limits of the council’s so-called power of the purse, and underscores why many members of the council want to wrestle control of the department away from the mayor through the public safety ballot initiative.

“The ballot initiative would allow us to have an actual conversation about what was going wrong, which is that the horses were being used aggressively to control crowds,” said Council Member Steve Fletcher, who co-authored the budget amendment cutting funding to the mounted patrol. “We could pass a policy about how and if we use horses rather than playing games in the budget.”

All city department heads — from public works to the city attorney — have broad discretion over how they spend their budgets.

“The reason for that is that you don’t want to overly micromanage,” Fletcher said. “But it does mean that the budgetary decisions that we make are suggestive and symbolic.”

That department heads usually follow the council’s direction reflects “the good faith of department heads to honor the letter and spirit of democracy,” Fletcher said.

He called the mayor and police chief’s decision to keep the horses “a significant sign of disrespect.”

That the mayor hasn’t deferred to the council in its suggestions over policing is unsurprising. The mayor and a sizable bloc of the council have been at odds over the future of the department since Floyd’s death, with the mayor promising he can reform the department if voters reelect him and vote down the public safety ballot initiative.

In the statement attributed to Frey and Arradondo, the two made the case that the mounted patrol are necessary amid the exodus from the department that’s reduced the size of the force by more than 200 officers since Floyd’s killing and the subsequent riots.

“With increasing demand on officers and a decreasing supply of officers available to meet that demand, we decided to re-allocate funds from within the department to carry out day-to-day operations with the support of mounted patrol, which effectively serves as a staffing multiplier,” Frey and Arradondo wrote in the statement.

“We would be happy to revisit the conversation and work collaboratively with the council to fund officer staffing levels to a point that no longer necessitates the continued reliance on non-personnel expenses like mounted patrol. To this point, those efforts have not been successful.”

Minneapolis is the only city left in the state that uses officers on horseback. Duluth cut its mounted patrol in 2017 to bolster its investigative unit and St. Paul followed suit in 2019, directing the money toward cracking down on distracted driving.

Proponents of mounted patrol argue an officer on horseback can do the work of several officers on foot. They say the horses are useful as crowd pleasers as well as for crowd control.

“Known gang members will come up and talk to us about the horses. It’s one of the only times we get to have meaningful conversations that have a positive impact on the community that are not centered around a crime,” Minneapolis mounted patrol officer Chris Humphrey told Mpls.St.Paul Magazine in 2019.

Frey wants to continue funding the unit, and wrote in his 2022 budget proposal that “the increased visibility encourages youth and adults to engage with the horses and officers, enhancing community trust through countless positive public interactions.”

Fletcher is skeptical.

“They’re not winning over people who are mistrustful. They’re preaching to the choir. And I don’t think it’s a good use of tax money to preach to the choir,” Fletcher said.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.