AUSTIN (KXAN) — No one knows the 16 horses of the Austin Police Department’s mounted patrol unit like Sgt. Julie Payne. She can make the horses smile on command.
“We’re horse whisperers,” she said. “We teach all of our horses to do things out of heart and desire, instead of force, fear and intimidation.”
That work helps the horses and mounted patrol officers prepare for crowd-control situations like protests or out at Austin’s entertainment districts.
“We can move a large crowd, and we can do that without any use of force whatsoever,” said Sgt. Payne.
The training happens at APD’s mounted patrol facility in Manor, a space the department has leased for nearly 30 years.
In 2012, voters approved money for a new facility, which would have included a covered arena and more space. Sgt. Payne told KXAN the unit has outgrown its current facility. She says it often floods after rainfall, preventing training for days after.
She added the stalls are too small for many of the unit’s horses.
“We had to put that fencing right there,” she said, referring to one area just behind one of the horses, “Because if he walks any further back he would possibly damage his head.”
The Austin Police Department thought its Mounted Patrol Unit would have a new home by now. It prepared for this by purchasing an 88-acre site near the Circuit of the Americas back in 2011.
But in the years after, there were costly site plan hurdles. Even just a few years ago, we reported the new facility was expected to open in 2019. At the time of our report, APD was paying $4,500 a month to lease the Manor facility.
However, when APD received a bid to build the desired facility early this year, the price tag was $14.4 million—well over budget. The department rejected the bid.
But because of discussions in the last year about APD’s budget, it is now unclear when the new mounted patrol facility will be built—if at all.
APD staff told members of the city’s Bond Oversight Commission Wednesday it considered purchasing another property with the features the department is looking for already built in, but now, everything is on hold.
“The Mounted Patrol Facility project is on hold while the City and APD continue to work through the Reimagining Public Safety initiative,” a department spokesperson told us.
As part of the 2012 Election, voters approved $31,079,000 in bond money. To this point, more than $25 million has already been committed.
Projects also included a Northwest Substation. The department purchased land for it, and it is undergoing a feasibility study before moving to a design phase. To date, $4.1 million has been spent on the land purchase and pre-design.
Another planned bond project—a park patrol facility—was scrapped entirely in December 2018. The remaining funds were reallocated to the Mounted Patrol Facility.
“We’re hoping that everyone that loves horses and see that the welfare and safety of these animals,” said Sgt. Payne, speaking on the Mounted Patrol project. “We definitely need to get to a bigger and better facility.”