Since the Boston Police disbanded its mounted unit in 2009, sporadic efforts to bring back the horses haven't gone far.
Now, business leaders are working to help raise the $1 million to $1.5 million needed to get officers back in the saddle, patrolling parks and parades.
"I remember back when we were doing away with [the mounted unit]. I had more calls with people expressing sorrow," Police Commissioner William Evans said. "People hated to see them go. It's an important part of us being out there, being visible."
When car magnate Herb Chambers asked Evans during a lunch in May what he could do to help the department, Evans suggested reviving the dismantled mounted unit.
"The commissioner mentioned that they were trying to bring back the horses," said Chambers, who is willing to donate $100,000. "I think there are enough people that have pride in the city that would like to be involved in that."
Plans to restore the mounted unit, once the oldest in the country, are in their infancy. Evans said four to six horses would be needed, at least to get started, and officers would have to be trained to patrol on horseback. He doesn't know exactly what it would cost, but business leaders involved in the project have pegged the startup cost at as much as $1.5 million.
The mounted unit, which dates to 1873, helped control crowds during big sports celebrations and secured tough-to-patrol areas like the parks along the Fens. But the unit, with its dozen horses, was disbanded under former mayor Thomas Menino in 2009 to save $600,000 a year during tough budgetary times.
However, the city still has a mounted park ranger program that has seven horses, at an annual cost of about $11,000 a horse, and six rangers certified to ride them, a parks and recreation department spokesman said.
Stephen Murphy tried unsuccessfully to revive the mounted police patrols when he was on Boston's city council. And Mayor Martin J. Walsh, soon after he took office in 2014, signaled that he was eager to see police on horseback again. But his top police officers, led by Evans, have had more urgent issues.
Now, Evans is hopeful that a combination of corporate support and city funding will be enough to restore the mounted unit. "I wouldn't mind seeing if we could get them in play for next spring or summertime," Evans said.
Besides helping with crowd control, police on horseback can be good for public relations, allowing officers to interact with parents and children in a nonconfrontational way, he said.
Evans still needs to make a formal pitch to the Boston Police Foundation, which raises money for police programs and equipment that the city can't afford on its own. Dick Parry, the foundation's chairman, said his group can't promise any sort of advertising for the donors, such as corporate logos on the horses, although the foundation would acknowledge the support through its marketing materials and at its annual gala.
But Boston police officials left open the possibility that donors could name the horses.
Parry, who also is chief security officer at Hologic Inc. in Marlborough, said discussions between the police department and the foundation about reviving the horse program have begun, but his group has not yet received a financial request. There are still questions that need to be answered, he said, such as where the horses would be stabled. (The parks and recreation spokesman said there is no extra room at the Franklin Park stable.)
"There's a lot more that goes into this," Parry said. "It's a lot more than acquiring horses."
Foundation board members George Regan, who owns a Boston public relations firm, and Sean McGrath are drumming up support. McGrath, president of Natick real estate development firm Stonegate Group, secured a $100,000 commitment through his family's foundation, the Highland Street Foundation. That should be enough to pay for one horse and related equipment, he said.
"I'm very encouraged with the direction it's going," McGrath said of efforts to line up verbal commitments. "They may have funding for half of what they need."
Bill Richey, owner of training firm National Mounted Police Services Inc., said he wasn't surprised to learn that Boston wants to bring back its mounted police, as other cities have. A 10-foot-high police officer on a horse simply can see more and be seen by more people than an officer on foot, he said.
Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation in Washington, said he doesn't know of research that shows how effective mounted patrols have been in the United States. He said Boston officials should consider why they want the mounted unit to return and how well they've been able to make do without it.
If the goal is largely community relations, for example, then maybe replicating the police department's ice cream truck might be more cost effective, he said.
"Would it go further to buy more ice cream trucks in the summer, and hot cocoa trucks in the winter?" Bueermann said. "I don't think these are difficult questions to ask or to answer. . . . Horses are expensive. [But] if they're more effective, then that might justify the expense."