After a seventeen-plus year absence, the Ocala Police Department is considering the return of mounted units.
Police Chief Mike Balken spoke to council members regarding the department’s strategic goals during the regular Ocala City Council meeting that was held on Tuesday.
Council member Barry Mansfield posed several questions to Balken during the meeting. “We’re seeing a lot of explosions in growth. How do you handle that in your department as far as how many police officers need to be on staff? Do we need more? How does that affect you?”
Mansfield also asked, “We’re obviously the Horse Capital of the World. What happened to our mounted posse?”
“I think your second question is easier to answer. I would agree with your comment that we are the Horse Capital of the World, and if any law enforcement agency should have a mounted unit, I would say that the City of Ocala should,” Balken said.
Balken stated that OPD previously had a mounted unit until 2003-2004, and he was the supervisor of that unit. When Chief Williams was appointed, the request was made to disband the mounted team.
He pointed out that mounted units can be extremely expensive for the department, from vet and feed bills and housing issues to the horses needing to be fed, watered, and groomed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
In order to have a mounted unit, appropriate financial support would be required.
“It’s something that I’ve been toying with as it relates to our strategic plan,” Balken said.
Historically, he stated that the Chief and Sheriff look at the mounted units and base success on production numbers, which according to Balken cannot be done with a mounted unit.
“You’re really looking at a deterrent effect. It’s kind of hard to miss a cop on a horse 14 feet in the air,” Balked said.
According to Balken, OPD is undergoing expansion talks with the owner of the property located near the railroad tracks behind the department’s current facility. OPD is looking to increase the size of its facility, and Balken feels that mounted units could eventually be kept on site.
The Southeastern Livestock Pavilion was previously used to house the department’s horses.
Balken indicated that there have been brief conversations over the past few months and there seems to be initial support for the idea of mounted units, and he is hopeful that sponsors can be established to help with funding.
He also addressed council member Mansfield’s question about department growth.
“Our historical approach has been to wait until the calls got so bad that we came and begged for positions,” Balken said.
The department, according to Balken, has always worked on a shoestring budget and only asked for the bare minimum of what was needed.
He is aware of what the department needs moving forward, and he will be asking for 25 new officer positions and several non-sworn support positions. Those additions would help the department get to a 60% patrol time allocated toward preventative patrols.
He also highlighted the recent salary increases for OPD officers which makes the department the highest paid agency in the county. The salary for officers increased to nearly $46,000.
Balken added, “We know the numbers now that are needed. I’m looking five years down the road to make sure we’re never in this position again.”
Since the growth in the Ocala area has exploded, Balken wants to ensure that the department adequately keeps pace with that growth.