After nearly 140 years of patrolling the city on horseback, the San Francisco Police Department’s mounted patrol unit has added a requirement this year that officers wear helmets while riding their trusty steeds.
At the Union Square restaurant John’s Grill this afternoon, police Chief Greg Suhr, two patrol horses and their associated officers will gather to mark the change.
At the restaurant, located at 63 Ellis St., a 1 p.m. lunch will be served to Rusty and Charlie, two of the 13 horses who live in police stables at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park.
The horses will saddle up just outside the restaurant’s entryway, Officer Jeff Roth said.
Roth, whose horse is 13-year-old Rusty, will attend, along with fellow Officer Matthew Castagnola riding Charlie. Roth said his horse is accustomed to city life and stays calm no matter where he is.
Roth, who has been with the force since 1981, joined the mounted unit more than four years ago. He said there is a 27-year waitlist to become a member of the horse patrol.
A native San Franciscan, Roth said he did not have a strong horseback-riding background, aside from the occasional trail ride, but as a young officer he saw the effectiveness of mounted officers for crowd control and pursued a transfer to the unit.
Although the eight full-time and one part-time mounted patrol officers mostly ride around Golden Gate Park, they can be called in as backup for any police event.
Sometimes, that leads to a funny juxtaposition, Roth said.
“Everyone is looking at you as you’re galloping through the Tenderloin,” Roth said.
As for the helmet requirement, Roth said some of his fellow officers had already opted to wear the safety equipment before this year. He is still getting used to the change himself
Accidents are rare, Roth said. However, in 2008, an officer fell off his horse in Golden Gate Park and was on leave for about a year.
Situated next-door to the now-shuttered Golden Gate Stables near the Polo Fields, the police stables were erected in 1937 and modernized in the 1990s, Roth said.
The mounted unit has quite the history, patrolling San Francisco since 1874. Roth said the stable headquarters’ walls are lined with late 19th-century photographs showcasing the unit throughout the years.
Many cities have cut their mounted patrols, including Boston and San Diego, according to Roth.
The California Mounted Officer Association holds annual events to support this subset of the police community, Roth said.
Sasha Lekach, Bay City News