JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – If you see officers on horseback in your neighborhood — no, you haven’t gone back in time.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is ramping up its Mounted Unit once again to give police an advantage with a number of scenarios in the community.
On Feb. 7, the equine enforcers were put to their biggest test yet as they helped find a wanted man who jumped the fence onto NAS Jacksonville. Exclusive video from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter involved in the search shows the officers on horseback homing in on the suspect before a JSO K-9 bit the man. He was taken to the hospital in police custody.
JSO is training two more horses, bringing the unit up to six horses. Each is paired with a specially selected officer.
They’re used for football games, concerts, parades and protests.
They’re majestic and effective at the same time. When they’re out, they turn heads.
Avery Evans, a 4-year-old, was at a loss for words when he saw them in downtown Jacksonville. Officers hope it’s a memory he’ll talk about for years.
“It gives the kids something fun to see, you know?” said Lamar Evans, his father. “They’re able to get up close and personal with them.”
There’s a lot of training and effort to get to this point. JSO hosts tryouts to find the right officers for the job.
“I prayed almost every day I would get this job,” said Officer Jamie Alexander, who is part of the unit.
Whether it’s a veteran like Midnight or a rookie like Jax, the horses must trust their officers, and the officers must trust their four-legged partners.
The horses are housed, cared for and trained at “The Barn.” It’s JSO’s equestrian facility in LaVilla.
“I love it,” said Martin Brophy, a retired mounted officer who now is JSO’s farrier. “I’m in here, I get to deal with the animals. I’m kind of in my own world here.”
Brophy cares for the horses and keeps them healthy with fresh fitted horseshoes.
JSO used horses for policing for decades, but budget cuts in 2012 halted the Mounted Unit. Sheriff Mike Williams brought the unit back in 2018, and JSO has expanded it since. The agency now has six horses and specially trained officers.
“I’ve only been working with him for 60 days,” said Sgt. Ben Rhodes, who is working to train new horses, like Judge.
Judge is named in honor of Assistant Chief Jimmy Judge, a beloved JSO supervisor, who is battling Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“The horses seem to help with JSO’s public image,” said mother Candic Gaines, who showed the horses to her daughter as they were downtown.
“I never get to see stuff like this,” Gaines said. “Not those type of horses. They’re big and healthy.”
While they’re prominent at parades and sports events, the horses are used for active calls as well. Those include civil unrest, missing persons and criminal apprehensions.
This fall, patrol officers were chasing a carjacker through crowds at a Jaguars game. The horses were already there for crowd control and helped corral the suspect onto a trailer where officers tased and arrested him.
On Feb. 7, the Mounted Unit dispatched to its first manhunt since coming back to the agency. Investigators reported a man crashed a stolen car near NAS Jacksonville, then jumped the fence, running onto the base.
More than 100 officers searched the woods for nearly five hours until police on horseback spotted the five-time convict hiding in the brush. They held the perimeter while K-9 Renegade captured 44-year-old Reuben Carrigg II.
“The advantages of a mounted unit, obviously, they can go places the vehicles cannot,” said Lt. Jason Bailey, who oversees the mounted and K-9 units within JSO. “We’ve been asked to assist with missing individuals who might be in a woodland area. We assist with those searches. It also provides crowd control during events at the stadium.”
It’s why police are picking up their presence, patrolling neighborhoods and events like they did in years past — from downtown to the beaches to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade and Art Walk.
“It provides a different aspect and a different view,” Bailey said.
The mounted unit does bring the horses to certain events by request, so if you’d like them to make an appearance, call JSO and ask.