Horseplay brings officers closer to community.
As part of its community policing efforts, the department identified a number of low-income neighborhoods experiencing problems with drugs and crime. Reaching out to the children living there was given top priority.
Because the Mounted Unit patrols these neighborhoods, the department decided to develop a program that would use the children's natural curiosity about the unit's horses to bridge the gap between the children and the police. The program, named PEP for Police Athletic League (PAL) and Equestrian Program, introduces the children to the officers of the Mounted Unit and their horses. As they learn basic horsemanship skills, participants also get to know the police officers. In turn, the officers can establish positive relationships with the youngsters.
Boys and girls age 8-14 participate in PEP, and all are members of the precinct's PAL program. Divided into groups of 10-12 participants, they meet once a week for 5 weeks at the stables. Each session lasts about 3 hours. The PEP schedule is designed to hold the children's attention without overwhelming them.
During the first meeting, the officers of the Mounted Unit, the grooms, and the training staff introduce themselves to the participants. The children get most excited when they meet the stars of the Mounted Unit, its 14 horses. Next, they learn about the operation of the barn and how to care for the horses. As part of the program, the children feed, groom, and tack (harness) the horses themselves.
The program participants, like most children, never have been close to a horse and often are reluctant to approach them. Sometimes on the first day, several children even refuse to get off the bus. Yet, the department's nationally recognized equestrian trainer makes the program fun, as well as educational. When the reluctant children see how friendly the horses are and how much fun their friends are having, even the shyest ones become eager to join the group. So far, no one has failed to lead or ride a horse within the first 2 weeks.
Training games teach the kids basic handling techniques. In one game, for example, the kids line up at opposite ends of the training field and have a relay race where they walk with the horses from one end to the other. This game teaches them how to lead the horses properly. Other games include sitting on the horses while passing beach balls back and forth, jumping on and off the horses (to help alleviate fears of falling), tacking races, and even completing an obstacle course where the children guide the horses over poles, around barrels, and through mazes.
During the fourth session, the children go on a trail ride that allows them to control a horse independently, but only under the watchful eye of the trainers and PEP officers. In the fifth week, the PEP officers invite the parents to a riding show put on by the children. The kids compete in games and activities to show off their newly acquired skills. The children receive ribbons noting their tiding achievements and a photograph of them tiding one of the police horses.
The most important consideration during the development of PEP was the safety of the children. As with any riding situation, the possibility of injury exists. The equestrian trainer who designed the program takes special precautions to minimize the chances of injury, and the department also makes certain that the children are covered by health insurance. In addition to self-insurance provided by the city, all participants receive coverage from the national PAL organization.
To offset the department's expenses for operating the program, the not-for-profit Friends of the Mounted Unit donates funds for refreshments, safety helmets, T-shirts with the PAL and Mounted Unit logos, and photographs of the children. With this assistance, the PEP program does not depend directly on the department for funds, and the burdens of money management are removed from the department's administrators. Members of the Friends of the Mounted Unit also contribute significant time and effort to help administer the program.
In the first summer, the Second Precinct conducted two PEP sessions for children living within its jurisdiction. Other precincts in Virginia Beach have expressed a desire to participate, so the program will expand in the future to include children from targeted neighborhoods citywide.
Strong, positive relationships between children and police officers often grow into similarly positive relationships between adults and police officers. By encouraging and satisfying the children's natural curiosity about horses, PEP officers develop close connections with the communities they serve.
PEP gives neighborhood kids a fun and educational way to get to know the members of the police department who patrol their communities. The Police Athletic League and Equestrian Program provides a unique avenue for the department to pursue its community policing initiatives.
Captain Baker commands the Personnel and Training and Services Division of the Virginia Beach, Virginia, Police Department.
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|Title Annotation:||Police Practice; Virginia Beach, Virginia Mounted Unit's equestrian program|
|Publication:||The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1995|
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