By JEFFREY JENSEN
Milwaukee — Officer John Pederson, amiable, 22-year veteran of the MPD Mounted Patrol, greeted the visitor to the new, posh MKE Urban Stables complex on E. Lincoln Avenue with a smile and a “Welcome to the ‘Barn’”. But notably, later, two hours into a most impressive guided tour of the immaculate 27,000-square-foot facility and a visit with his 9-year-old horse, “Fish,” and the other majestic Percherons, he used a more appropriate metaphor to describe the squad’s new ‘home’.
“We’re a part of the Specialized Patrol Division which includes the Motorcycle, Canine, Harbor Patrol and Tactical Enforcement units based at 47th and Vliet,” he explained. “But now that we have the ‘Taj Mahal’, we don’t go there for roll call anymore.”
Indeed, just a short jaunt down the street from the Basilica of St. Josaphat on a long-vacant, formerly blighted four-acre site is now an expansive, enchanting community outreach center and gathering place which is not only the new headquarters for the Mounted Patrol (horses and humans both), but also the base for a new Equine-Assisted Therapy Program which is just starting up. The center includes a paddock area out back, an indoor arena, a 1400-square-foot multipurpose room, kitchen area, men’s and women’s locker rooms and 24 horse stalls, 12 each for the MPD side and Therapy side. The latter group has already partnered with the Zablocki VA Hospital, Hamilton High School and Rawhide Boys Ranch among other organizations, to provide help for military vets dealing with PTSD, kids with special needs and other citizens dealing with a variety of trauma. MKE Urban Stables proudly claims to be the first community center in the nation to combine Mounted Patrol horses with public engagement programs.
When the idea for a new complex was born a few years ago, the planners, architects and the MPD looked all over for location possibilities, but quickly agreed on the unused parcel adjacent to the Kinnickinnic River Bike Trail to the west with the Klement’s Sausage Company on its southern edge.
“As soon as we saw this land, this was it!” Pederson gushed. “This is an upcoming area with a lot of development happening, but we’re in a nice little niche here. There is opportunity for a lot of community interaction, and families even stop with their bikes and watch the horses. There’s a quarter mile stretch of land near the river with woods that I’d like to use for riding trails someday and also place a bench for bikers to sit on. Once we have this up and running it’s going to be pretty gratifying. I like having people in our home.”
The eight members of the patrol unit take care of the horses and chores all by themselves, and spend most of their duty-time downtown at events such as Jazz at the Park and River Rhythms, when not overseeing church functions, block parties, Summerfest, and Brewers games, etc. Now firmly anchored in their new location, they also hope to spend more time patrolling nearby south side neighborhoods including the Lincoln Avenue and Kinnickinnic Avenue commercial districts.
The Percheron breed is chosen purposely for their size (the largest, “Tanner,” weighs 2000 pounds) and temperament, and provide an unmistakable and invaluable “visibility” and “presence”. Pederson and “Fish” were recently assigned to patrol a Water Street festival which was scheduled to end at four o’clock on a Sunday morning, but, as is often the case, some people needed some gentle coaxing to leave.
“The horses are big and intimidating,” he said good naturedly. “But we try to encourage the people with kindness and humor. At 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I’ll tell them, ‘C’mon, let’s go, it’s time to go to church!’”
The Percherons’ training is ongoing and designed to prepare and desensitize the horses for anything they may encounter on the street. A beautiful, large indoor arena can now be used for that purpose where the team has at various times employed starter pistols, loud music, firecrackers, aluminum cans strung out on the ground and even a mattress to get the horses comfortable with sounds and other distractions they may face during crowd control situations.
“We’re definitely a public relations-leaning group,” Pederson said, “because we’re talking to people all day long. Almost everyone enjoys the photo ops and I’ve never had my picture taken so often in my life!”
Still, of course, the Mounted Patrol also plays a vital law enforcement role and they’ve made arrests ranging from public drinking to homicide and bank robbery, and also have done searches for missing people.
Officer Pederson, a former Marine and Desert Storm veteran, started his policing career in 1995,
one of 59 recruits that year; today, he’s the only one left. The other 58 officers have since retired. And he readily admits he may have gone the same route as the others if not for the special blessing of being selected for the Mounted Patrol in 1999. And the honor and privilege never wears off.
“Before my father (John Sr.) died in 1984 he was on the force for 19 years and always told me, ‘Don’t be a police officer!’ But he would be happy because he loved horses and this is just the best thing in the world,” Pederson said. “Even after 22 years it’s just very cool for me to see a fellow officer on a horse. The key thing is for this facility to be used as much as possible and be a busy hub, for both the department and community, so that we’re locked in long after I’m gone and to see the horse patrol stay alive.”
You can find interesting bios and fun facts about the Mounted Patrol officers and their horses at this website: mpdmpfoundation.org.