By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Visitors to “The Big Easy” are used to seeing horse-mounted officers keeping order in the French Quarter.
Now, visitors to “The Little Easy” are seeing them have the same effect in downtown Oxford.
Four officers finished a week-long training course with the Mobile, Ala., Police Department on Feb. 17, including several nights of helping patrol Mardi Gras celebrations.
Already, Oxford’s equestrian officers have begun to make themselves and their mounts a part of the downtown streetscape.
They also will work April’s Double-Decker Festival, when downtown Oxford attracts some 30,000 people, as a warm-up for this fall’s football season.
The idea started after the numbers of fans in town for University of Mississippi football games kept growing. With most of Oxford’s most popular bars located within a block or two of the Square, the crowds around entryways often meant alcohol-fueled fights could quickly affect dozens of bystanders.
“Several years ago when LSU came to Oxford, we came close to having a bad situation,” said Joey East, Oxford’s assistant police chief. “After that, we started talking about ideas for how to handle rowdy crowds before things get ugly.”
Given their success in New Orleans, New York and several other cities accustomed to hosting swells of visitors, the idea of mounted patrols rose to the top, and city aldermen eventually approved a test run.
“We’re looking at methods of policing large crowds,” said Oxford Police Chief Mike Martin. “The mounted officers will be used along with officers on foot.”
East said he, Lt. Wes Hatcher, Lt. Chris Robertson and Sgt. Ashley Williams were surprised during their Mardi Gras experience to learn just how effective mounted patrol can be.
Horses give officers an obvious advantage in monitoring crowds, and revelers almost automatically move aside to allow the massive animals through to trouble spots.
“You had a lot of people who were severely intoxicated, and yet they responded to the horses,” East said. “There would be a place like the Grove where they’d barbecue, waiting on the Mardi Gras celebration to start. Sometimes a fight would break out, and we would move people away from the fight.
“Even when the people want to be confrontational,” he said, “it’s hard to argue with a horse.”