Lower Manhattan residents critique policing and mounted units


Lower Manhattan, NEW YORK--The police presence and practice in Lower Manhattan is under debate and faces further shifting as the city has been expanding police efforts to protect the World Trade Center and, at the same time, scaled back horse patrols from Downtown in 2011. At the Tribeca Committee meeting of Community Board 1 on Feb. 12, citizens and local officials talked about the future relocation of the World Trade Center Command Post (WTCC). Citizens expressed some concerns about those plans as well as ongoing angst about losing the mounted patrols from Lower Manhattan, which has seen horse-pulled subway lines, street cleaners and mounted police patrols over the years.

At present, the WTCC and its 150 officers work from 19 Varick Street, the same building that used to house the horses and mounted patrols in Lower Manhattan. Deputy Inspector Kevin Burke said the WTCC will likely remain there for the next three to four years but plans to find a new location from which to operate by 2017 with up to 630 officers.

In a letter to Community Board 1 in May 2011 outlining those goals, then Police Commissioner, Raymond Kelly explains that “the temporary establishment of the WTCC in the vacated facility is necessary to advance the New York City Police Department’s mission to protect this city."

According to Burke, many officers currently take public transit to work at 19 Varick but some drive in and park, which creates a strain on the current location. But residents quibbled with the nature of the WTCC, which is more focused on protecting the World Trade Center than on local, community policing.

Tribeca resident, Patricia Aakre said she recalls approaching an officer at 19 Varick during Hurricane Sandy, asking if they could help direct traffic. She says the officer replied, “We’re here to prevent looting.”

Aakre also said three years passed since Community Board 1 has been updated on the policing issues. She believed the WTCC would be a temporary policing effort rather than an ongoing one.

Burke confirmed that the officers at 19 Varick are not responsible for low-level 911 calls. He and others confirmed that the WTCC is fully dedicated to protecting the World Trade Center, not pursuing local police matters. Three other local police precincts are located in Lower Manhattan as well as NYPD headquarters.

The other contentious issue at the meeting centered on the Mounted Unit horse stables that used to operate from 19 Varick but were closed and moved to 36th Street and 12th Avenue. Some in the Tribeca community want the horses to return and thought their removal was temporary.

Tribeca resident, Prudence Carlson, held the NYPD to “a solemn promise that [the horses] will come back.” In her view, the good will between police and the community was grounded in their engagement with the Mounted Unit in Tribeca. She hopes the horses and mounted patrols return to the former stables and location at 19 Varick when the WTCC finds a new location.

The New York City Transit Museum portrays a rich history of equine presence in New York City and the lower parts of Manhattan as public transportation started in the late 1820s with horse-pulled omnibuses. Legions of horse-drawn transit cars continued until an outbreak of equine influenza, or horse flu, in 1872.

New York’s mounted police unit declined to 79 police officers on 60 horses in 2011, down from 130 officers on 125 horses in 2001, according to a 2011 story in The New York Times.

Former commissioner Kelly sometimes called the mounted officers “10-foot tall cops.” But New York City is not alone in scaling back on mounted patrols. Other cities such as Philadelphia, Boston and San Diego see such patrols as a luxury expense and have retired all of their police horses, according to the Times.

Some fans of the patrols argue that mounted cops can see and patrol wider areas and are visible to more people, effectively engage with large crowds and serve as a strong crime deterrent. Meanwhile, detractors have complained that the horse patrols leave New York streets littered with manure. Others complain the horses are more for show than for real police work and that the horses have a history of trampling or injuring people in crowd control situations.