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Rockland budget cuts could signal end of mounted police unit

Members of Rockland County Sheriff's Mounted Unit, including

Members of Rockland County Sheriff's Mounted Unit, including from left, Garrett Clapp on Shields, Erica DeFilippo on Coughlin, and Sgt. Ted Bovarski on O'Grady, ride past Carty at Patrick Farm in Suffern. (Oct. 26, 2012) Photo Credit: Angela Gaul

Public safety -- especially among Rockland County's nightlife areas -- is becoming one of the sheriff's growing concerns as his office faces a 15 percent reduction in staff and the closure of his mounted unit, cuts laid out in County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef's proposed 2013 budget.

Nine officers -- along with six horses -- may be facing their last days as law enforcers. But Sheriff Louis Falco, who submitted his budget proposal with $3.5 million already shaved off in July, was blindsided by the last-minute slashes.

"We thought everything was OK," Falco told Newsday. "Vanderhoef's staff indicated that I was being reasonable since I cut that much out of my budget. Then he called me on Monday and said he was doing cuts."

In addition to football games and parades, the mounties head to crowded nightlife areas on the weekends in Nyack, Haverstraw and Spring Valley at the request of local departments to help control rowdy crowds.

"It's a crime deterrent, we call it a '10-foot cop,' " Falco said. "The animal is dominant. When people know that the cops can see them, everything moves off the street. They know that these horses and these cops completely mean business. You're not moving that 2,000 pound animal, you're not winning that fight."

Eric Petersen, a manager at O'Donoghue's Tavern on Main Street in Nyack, says large crowds can get unruly on the weekends when restaurants and bars start closing between 2 and 4 a.m.

"You see people, you even see just conversations stop when they come around," Petersen said. "They look at these gigantic horses and even just from that, they most certainly will keep people behaving and at bay."

The mounted unit began in the 1960s as a part-time effort, then expanded in 1998 under then-Sheriff James Kralik. In 2010, when Westchester County dispersed its mounted unit, they donated three of their horses to Rockland County.

The six horses, named after fallen officers, live at Hasty Hills Farm in Suffern. It is not yet clear where the horses would go if the unit is disbanded.

During the winter months, when the horses are not in service, the mounted officers serve orders of protection, conduct radiological detection in Rockland County with New York City's Secure the Cities initiative and random court-ordered drug testing.

"I don't know if those programs will continue to exist or not if we don't get these positions restored," Falco said.

Although a recent Civil Service Employees of America contract was recently approved, Falco said his officers did not agree to the "no layoffs clause" that other county employees had signed off on.

"My officers are in shock," Falco said. "I have to let them know the extreme possibilities of what may happen and hopefully we can restore these positions through the legislators."

At 8 p.m. Nov. 8, Falco will go before the legislature to try and save his officers, whose annual salaries total $750,000. The horses cost about $1,000 per month each in upkeep.

"We've shifted everything," Falco said. "I have nowhere else to go, but we need these officers. We need this unit."

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