Incident “makes me want to cry,” says former mounted police officer Beth Clifton
GALVESTON, Texas––Two Galveston mounted police officers clipped a handcuffed homeless and reportedly bipolar black man to a rope, with a noose at the other end of the rope, and walked the man between their horses eight blocks through the city streets on August 3, 2019.
The two police officers, P. Brosch and A. Smith, a male and a female, may have walked themselves out of their jobs, and very likely hastened the end of the mounted police era.
Brosch and Smith had arrested Donald Neely, 43, for misdemeanor criminal trespassing at the Heidenheimer-Hunter Building, 306 22nd Street in Galveston. They used their horses to move Neely to a post location where they met a police transport vehicle.
Built in 1877 as headquarters for a wholesale grocery chain, 40 years before the last known of several lynchings in Galveston, the Heidenheimer-Hunter building was named a Texas Historic Landmark in 1987. It currently houses a Merrill Lynch Financial Services office.
Neely had reportedly been warned several times to stay away from the property. But Neely had apparently not been accused of any offense more serious than loitering where he was not wanted.
At least one passing motorist videotaped the scene as Neely was led away. The video first aired on television late on August 5, 2019, evoking immediate shock and outrage from viewers.
Said Galveston Police Chief Vernon Hale III in a prepared statement, “First and foremost, I must apologize to Mister Neely for this unnecessary embarrassment. Although this is a trained technique and best practice in some scenarios,” Hale claimed, “I believe our officers showed poor judgement in this instance and could have waited for a transport unit at the location of the arrest.”
“Trained technique” where, when?
. Hale said his department would “review all mounted training and procedures for more appropriate methods,” he said.
ANIMALS 24-7 photographer, collage artist, researcher and social media editor Beth Clifton, a former Miami Beach mounted police officer, challenged Hale’s contention that “this is a trained technique and best practice.”
Her unit was never taught, or practiced, any such tactic, and would have been warned away from it, Beth Clifton said.
“The primary job of a mounted police unit is to improve public relations,” Beth Clifton explained. “A mounted police officer should be a friendly authoritative presence. Dragging a suspect on a rope undoes everything a mounted unit is supposed to stand for.
“I’m angry. I’m disgusted.”
“It is also extremely dangerous,” Beth Clifton pointed out. “Anything could have spooked those horses, and then the man might have been dragged, or kicked in the head, or both. The officers could have fallen. The horses could have been tripped by the rope and been injured.
“This makes me want to cry! I’m angry. I’m disgusted!” Beth Clifton posted to her personal Facebook page.
“These two yahoo cowshit cops need to be fired,” Beth Clifton opined. “The police chief okayed this behavior as a means of restraint and transport. He needs to go too!!!”
As a Miami Beach mounted police officer, Beth Clifton was once was confronted with a similar situation, involving a homeless man with both a known history of drug abuse and a history of violence, including having assaulted at least eight other police officers.
The suspect was behaving in a threatening manner. But without pulling her service firearm, Beth Clifton calmly told the man that her horse was attack-trained, and detained him without incident, until backup arrived to take him into custody.
“Visceral reaction on social media”
“The [Galveston] image stirred a visceral reaction on social media, even receiving attention from Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman,” reported Julian Gill of the Houston Chronicle and Nick Powell of Associated Press.
Tweeted O’Rourke, “A black man, dragged with a rope by police officers on horses, in 2019, demands accountability, justice, and honesty—because we need to call this out for what it is: racism at work.”
Agreed Anti-Defamation League interim southwest regional director Gail Glasser, “The photo of Galveston police officers leading an African American man down the street with a rope attached to his handcuffs is disturbing and offensive. Although Police Chief Vernon Hale III has apologized, the department’s actions have fallen short.”
“Humiliated the whole city of Galveston”
“With the climate in the country today, I would hate to see, six months or three years down the road, what kind of judgment these same officers would make in a worse scenario,” said Leon Phillips, president of the Galveston Coalition for Justice.
Phillips said officers Brosch and Smith should have remained with Neely until a police vehicle arrived, “instead of humiliating him. And now they have humiliated the whole city of Galveston,” Phillips added, “because everybody who sees it is going to have an opinion.
“These are two white police officers on horseback with a black man walking him down the street with a rope tied to the handcuffs, and that’s doesn’t make sense, period,” Phillips told media. “And I do understand this — if he was a white man, I guarantee it wouldn’t have happened.”
“This is 2019, not 1819.”
James Douglas, president of the Houston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, emailed to media that, “This is 2019 , not 1819. I am happy to know that Chief Vernon [Hale] issued an apology and indicated that the act showed poor judgement, but it also shows poor training. Even though the chief indicated that the technique would be discontinued, he failed to address the lack of respect demonstrated by the officers in the episode.”
Initially, in the 19th century, when full-time professionally trained police departments began to emerge from the part-time constabulary offices and corps of night watchmen who previously did most U.S. law enforcement, most urban police patrolled, or “pounded beats,” on foot, leading to the slang term “flatfoot” to designate a police officer.
Rural sheriffs, however, responded to calls on horseback, of necessity in order to quickly cover what were sometimes significant distances.
Boston introduced mounted police
Boston appears to have been the first U.S. city to institute a mounted police unit, beginning in 1869, soon emulated by most other cities of size.
But from the beginning, mounting urban police had drawbacks, one of which was simply keeping horses secure while dashing indoors in response to emergencies. Unattended police horses were easily stolen, including by criminals trying to make their escape.
Horses hurrying through the streets of crowded cities were also often injured on the job, or injured other people and animals.
Most of all, maintaining mounted police units tended to be expensive, requiring stables and stable staff, blacksmiths, farriers, and feed, all at cost much greater than merely stationing more foot police in more places to respond to local calls.
Model T Fords & motorcycles
Early in the 20th century, soon after the 1908 debut of the relatively inexpensive Model T Ford, practically all police units for whom mobility was of paramount concern switched from the use of horses to the use of motor vehicles.
Motorcycles took over the two police jobs at which horses had especially excelled: traffic control during busy times at intersections, and crowd control at public events.
Use of horses for crowd control, however, fell into political disfavor in the early decades of the U.S. labor movement, after police horses were on many occasions, in many cities, galloped into crowds of striking union members, and used much as cavalry horses had been used to charge infantry.
Civil rights era
Later, during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, police horses were used in the same manner against demonstrators seeking racial equality.
Injuries to horses and mounted police who fell from their steeds, and especially, lawsuits brought by victims of police charges against protesters eventually brought this use of police horses to an end. Many mounted police units were disbanded.
A few police horses remained on the job here and there, however, for ceremonial use in parades and funerals, and to patrol large parks and beaches, as at Miami Beach, where use of cars or motorcycles posed a risk to pedestrians.
Eventually the use of horses for crowd control returned to favor, but for a different reason: mounted police could see much more of the flow of a crowd than officers on foot, and could therefore more effectively help to empty out a crowded amphitheater, stadium, or auditorium.
Houston added a mounted police unit in 1983, the U.S. Capitol Police Department brought back a previously disbanded mounted unit in 2001, and Philadelphia in 2011 revived a mounted unit that had been disbanded in 2004.
In recent years, however, the trend has again been away from maintaining mounted police, chiefly due to cost. The revived U.S. Capitol Police Department mounted unit was again disbanded in 2005. The Boston mounted unit disbanded in 2009, after 140 years. The San Diego and Newark mounted units disbanded in 2011, after 120 years.
The Detroit mounted police corps, founded 1893, now consists of just five horses, down from 60 at peak.
Horses are sentient animals
Ceremonial use of mounted police remains popular with the public. Mounted police in parks and directing crowds at public events also remain well-accepted. But the use of horses in mock lynchings should not be well-accepted anywhere.
And, not to be forgotten or overlooked, horses are sentient animals, who are easily injured and frightened when forced into high-stress situations, especially among mobs of strangers, where they may become vulnerable to violent attack.
Galveston incident undercut the case for police using horses
Mounted police officers seeking to keep their jobs have had an increasingly difficult time rationalizing to budget-makers the continued allocation of resources that keeping a properly trained horse unit requires.
Incidents such as the Donald Neely arrest in Galveston undercut the major argument for mounted units: that because many people like horses, seeing police on horses tends to dispel negative feelings toward police.
When police horses are gratuitously misused to intimidate and humiliate people, the horses become part of a negative stereotype, much as did the misuse of police dogs during the civil rights era, and sometimes since then.