A former head of Homeland Security believes U.S. Border Patrol’s mounted horse units are needed to do the job but believes the way they’re used by the agency and all police departments in certain circumstances should receive a second look.
Janet Napolitano, who served as Homeland Security Secretary under President Obama from 2009 to 2013, spoke exclusively to WTOP about the recent controversy surrounding the handling of a surge in Haitian migrants at the southern border.
U.S. Border Patrol was heavily criticized for using a mounted horse unit to confront Haitian migrants crossing the Rio Grande on Sept. 19.
Napolitano, who is now a public policy professor at the University of California Berkeley and head of their Center for Security and Politics, said the federal government faced an “extraordinarily difficult” situation handling the flood of Haitian migrants.
But Napolitano said the use of Border Patrol horses is “an essential tool” and that the matter of general immigration policy should be taken up in Washington.
“I think one of the things that the Haitian episode demonstrates is that we really do need to go back and look at our immigration law and that’s the job of Congress if they were able to get to some of the serious underlying issues in our country,” said Napolitano.
While saying she wouldn’t directly comment on what happened in Del Rio, Napolitano did indicate that some reform is required.
“Where the horseback units are most useful is in the isolated parts of the [southern] border, not necessarily for crowd control,” Napolitano told WTOP. “That appears to be the way they were used in Del Rio.”
The use of mounted horse units by U.S. Border Patrol in Del Rio, which falls under U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is currently suspended pending an investigation.
Napolitano said the use of mounted horses by Border Patrol and urban police departments can also “be open to question.”
When pressed on what in particular should be questioned concerning local law enforcement usage of mounted horse patrols, Napolitano referenced police responses to protests.
“The uses of horses for crowd control is something that should be reexamined,” said Napolitano.
Mounted horses are used by dozens of police departments across the country, and a handful of police departments in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area at the local and federal levels.
U.S. Park Police have utilized mounted horse units in D.C. for crowd control, including during the clearing of demonstrators near Lafayette Square by the White House in June 2020.
The Metropolitan Police Department in D.C. had a mounted unit, which consisted of four officers and four horses, until August 2020, when it was disbanded due to budget cuts.
Baltimore City Police Department confirmed to WTOP that its horse unit is now under the Department of Recreation and is “not used in an enforcement capacity” and “now limited to community engagement.”
The Montgomery County, Maryland, division of Maryland-National Capital Park Police said it currently has 14 horses that are used for various assignments including patrol purposes, community events and crowd control.
Prince William County Police Department in Virginia has two horses that are owned by the National Park Service and are typically used for ceremonies, celebrations, school visits and community engagement.
A county police spokesman said the horses are trained for crowd control “but we don’t use them for that purpose.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees Border Patrol, recently confirmed to WTOP that all southwest sectors except for Yuma Arizona have horse units, while there is only one along the entire northern border in Spokane, Washington.
Asked if there was an imbalance on the placement of units, Napolitano thinks border control is putting the horses where the need is greatest.
“The horseback units are designed because there are large stretches of the southwest border where horses are really the best way to patrol the border,” said Napolitano, who was also asked if Border Patrol should disband all horse units over the incident in Del Rio.
“I don’t think so,” said Napolitano. “I think when properly used, they expand the ability of the Border Patrol to police the border.”
Napolitano thinks the Biden administration is doing the best it can handling immigration but offered a solution to deal with what she calls “too restrictive” immigration policy.
“When we’re too restrictive, it doesn’t really match the reality of what our economy requires and the appreciation of our values,” Napolitano said.
“I think [it] should combine effective border control with a greater ability for people to enter the country legally,” said Napolitano, “Either through temporary work visas or through greater use of asylum.”