Miami’s mounted police patrol turns heads in Little Havana

06/22/2014 2:59 PM

06/26/2014 3:20 PM

Miami police officer Eduardo Pérez doesn’t patrol the neighborhood in a sleek squad car. He’s not on a motorcycle either. Pérez’s partner against crime is a tobacco-colored horse named Panchito.

Pérez and Panchito, a Morgan, draw stares from locals and tourists alike as they clomp on the streets and sidewalks of Calle Ocho in Little Havana. On a recent patrol, a child stepped forward.

“You can touch his nose. It’s the softest part,” Pérez told the child, who got close enough with his father to have a picture taken.

Pérez and Panchito are part of Miami’s mounted police unit, a patrol of 12 horses, nine officers and a sergeant. They watch over the city’s neighborhoods seven days a week.

The mounted police have “totally changed” Callo Ocho, said Miguel Ramos, who works at Máximo Gómez Domino Park on Southwest 15th Avenue.

In addition to preventing crimes, a single mounted officer can do the work of 10 officers on the ground when it comes to controlling crowds, Pérez said.

Miami’s mounted police unit goes back to 1937, when Sgt. Leroy Shelton initiated the program as an experiment with a few officers to patrol certain areas of Miami. The police department made the unit official a decade later under Police Chief Walter E. Headley after a group of businesses donated horses to the unit.

Many people find an officer on top of a horse more approachable than one sitting inside a patrol car with closed windows. In turn, the officer has a better view of the street.

“On the horse, the officer reaches almost 10 feet high, which allows him to see farther than an officer inside a vehicle,” said Pérez, who begins his day at 6:30 a.m. at the Lummus Park stable, 360 NW Third St., where he bathes Panchito before going into the heart of Little Havana.

“We also patrol at a slower pace than a police vehicle, which allows us to observe and listen to our surroundings in detail,” Pérez added.

The job of the mounted police, however, goes far beyond a regular patrol. Besides mixing it up with the tourists, mounted officers help with traffic control, assist pedestrians across the street and educate kids on safety. They make arrests — for burglaries, robberies and anything else that happens on the streets, including confronting rowdy drunks.

“Everybody knows Panchito,” said Pérez, who estimates he made 11 arrests in May.

Panchito’s real name is Striker, but since he began his rounds on Calle Ocho, Pérez and area residents decided to give him a name more with the flavor of Little Havana’s identity.

“People in this neighborhood have memorized my schedule,” Pérez said. “If they see me in the area, they know I am watching and, in certain circumstances, it works as a strategy to deter crime.”

Neighborhood residents are thankful. One woman gives the officer three cut apples and three peppermint candies for Panchito every day.

The gestures are not limited to Calle Ocho. Pérez received a Christmas card sent from Denmark, with a photo of Pérez, Panchito and the Danish family visiting Miami.

Pérez also has received awards for improving the quality of life of Little Havana residents.

“He deserves it more than anybody else,” said Corinna Moebius, co-founder of the Little Havana Merchant Alliance and a tourist guide. “His presence has a positive impact on tourists, and saying hello to him every day on the street makes me feel safer than I would feel with a police officer who stays all the time in his vehicle.”

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