Former Lexington officer plans to create a premier mounted unit

jkegley@herald-leader.comJanuary 15, 2013 

As many cash-strapped city police departments reduce or eliminate horse-mounted officer programs, a former Lexington officer plans to create a premier mounted unit in Central Kentucky.

Lisa Rakes, a well-known trainer and veteran mounted officer, was sworn in Friday as captain of the Kentucky Horse Park Mounted Police.

For years, Rakes and her former police horse, a Percheron-Thoroughbred cross named Jake, were fixtures in downtown Lexington, patrolling high-crime areas and acting as ambassadors for the Lexington police department. She was among 11 officers who retired from the department at the end of 2012, spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said.

Jake will be retired soon, too, Rakes said, due to declining health.

Rakes, 46, replaced Capt. George Atwood, who retired from the Horse Park last year. She will oversee seven sworn officers who patrol the 1,032-acre state park.

Though Rakes' unit is called the Kentucky Horse Park Mounted Police, not all of the officers ply their trade from horseback, Rakes said. Most patrol the park in a vehicle.

One of Rakes' first tasks will be to certify all officers as mounted officers, she said. Increasing a mounted police unit runs counter to what many city police departments are doing, including Lexington.

Wilmore mayor and Asbury University professor Harold Rainwater said many departments across the nation have reduced mounted units, or eliminated them entirely, with a few exceptions.

Rainwater, 66, directs equine programs at Asbury. His students train police mounts that are sold to departments all over the United States.

"When departments look at the effectiveness of officers and the cost, a mounted unit is pretty expensive," he said. "Our horses still are being placed and sold, but departments as a whole are in decline."

Over the past several years, the Lexington Division of Police has cut its mounted unit from eight to two full-time officers. Positions were eliminated as officers have retired or transferred to patrol.

Assistant Police Chief Mark Bernard said Chief Ronnie Bastin has had to "prioritize things" because of lower staffing levels. The department was in need of more front-line patrol officers who could respond to calls.

However, Lexington police are trying to invigorate the unit in new ways. The department is implementing a "Field Rider Program" in which police officers will serve as mounted officers on a part-time basis, Barnard said. Part-time riders would have to undergo the same training and certification as full-time riders.

The department plans to restore two of the full-time positions as new recruits are hired, Barnard said. He said the Lexington police mounted unit would eventually share resources and training with Rakes' new unit.

Once Rakes' officers at the Kentucky Horse Park are certified for mounted police work, they will perform ceremonial and public-relations duties typical of mounted units. They also will do day-to-day law enforcement from horseback more often, she said.

The expansive state park, which hosted the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010, routinely draws about a million visitors per year. The dedicated police force keeps an eye on barns where expensive horses are stabled and a camp grounds where guests sometimes get unruly.

"We have to watch for vehicle break-ins, minor property damage reports, or an intoxicated or disorderly subject occasionally," Rakes said. "But we are very much a tourist destination, so thankfully we don't have a lot of law breaking going on."

Rakes said she hopes generally to make the unit "more visible" by hosting civilian training clinics and eventually partnering with other police departments more often.

Rarely, the horse park's mounted officers are enlisted in other jurisdictions for special details. They, along with Lexington and Louisville mounted officers, were temporarily sworn in to monitor crowds at Centre College's vice-presidential debate in Danville last year.

Rakes was among between two and three dozen applicants for the position, Kentucky Horse Park Director John Nicholson said. She came highly recommended, he said.

Rakes spent 17 of her 23 years as a Lexington police officer on the mounted unit. Retired Lexington police Sgt. Ellen Sam, who supervised the mounted unit for about eight years, called Rakes "a natural leader, well respected by the other officers in her squad."

In the last 15 years, Rakes has won about 40 awards from the North American Police Equestrian Championships. A 2010 Lexington Employee Extra publication called her "one of the most decorated mounted officers in the nation."

"I was aware of her outstanding reputation," Nicholson said. "I have no doubt that, given some time under Captain Rakes' leadership, the Kentucky Horse Park Mounted Police will be among the leading mounted police units in the country.

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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