Equine Officers on Patrol
A four-horse crew serves the community
BY Nikki Gillis
A quick stroll through the busy streets of downtown Wilmington involves many sounds, but the most memorable might be the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. Comet, Crescent, Elton and Ranger, the Wilmington Police Department Mounted Unit’s equine officers, are frequently on patrol, maintaining crowd control — which can involve clearing sidewalks — and preventing fights from the bar crowds. They also perform ceremonial duties.
The unit was founded by Officer John Winecoff in 1988, when downtown Wilmington was plagued by crime. Winecoff was assigned a walking beat, a designated area to patrol by foot or bicycle. Instead, he asked if he could patrol by riding his horse. The human-equine pairing became an overnight success, winning the respect of residents and community officials.
Wilmington’s is just one of three mounted units in the state, and the only one with regular patrols. The animals’ breeding combines size, strength and agility, with draft horses like Percheron and Belgium along with Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses.
Ofc. J. Watts has been with the unit for nearly 20 years, training horses and officers. He knows the unique personality of each equine officer well.
Comet is a 22-year-old dappled gray. He’s the dominant one on the team. He is a fast runner, and a natural performance horse. He is dramatic and loves to put on a show for an audience.
Standing 17 hands, Ranger is an 8-year-old with a silky bay coat. He is the newest on the force after joining last year. Ranger is full of energy and is still learning to adjust to his role on the team.
Crescent at 16.2 hands and Elton at 16.3 hands are 22-year-old big-boned half-brothers with rich bay coats. They are natural carriage horses who are calm and work well with the law enforcement unit. Crescent is the peacemaker of the crew.
Each horse’s strengths and characteristics are incorporated into the team structure. Crescent is the most dependable. Comet at 16.2 hands is the showoff who loves attention. Elton is like Crescent but he’s a little bit more impatient.
Elton is also the biggest star, earning a lot of publicity after he was struck from behind by a car while on patrol last year. Fortunately, he didn’t sustain any long-term injuries. The horse’s temperament kept the incident from turning more critical.
For a month or so after the accident, Elton was trailered throughout Wilmington to meet his fans and take pictures with them.
Along with policing, the Mounted Unit has transitioned into a public relations service. People of all ages and backgrounds want to interact with the horses, meet the officers on the team, and find ways to support them.
All the horses and officers are popular photography subjects, with locals and visitors taking a couple of hundred pictures on a normal day, and even more during parades and festivals.
While they make it look easy when out on patrol, the real work takes place behind the scenes in grooming, feeding and training. The average training time for both horse and officer is about a year.
There is a high level of commitment from officers who join the unit. They view the horses as extended family and care for their well-being and safety. The officers rotate duty and care for the horses even on their days off.
The Mounted Unit officers are grateful for the love and support of the greater Wilmington community. People often reach out to ask how they can support them.
“It’s nice to see how much people care about the horses and they’re just as protective of them as we are,” Watts says.
Wilmington Police Museum & Education Center
By Pat Bradford
In late March 2023, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Wilmington Police Department opened a Museum and Education Center in the front lobby of its headquarters at 615 Bess St. The center highlights the history of the city’s policing, with photography exhibits dating back to 1800 and interactive educational opportunities. Free tours by officers and cadets are offered with appointment through the community engagement team/unit. “Our goal is for schools and civic groups to make this space an annual learning stop,” the department says on its website.
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