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Our View: ‘Tough decision’ — but the right one

Four years ago, when former Police Chief Gordon Ramsay made what at the time was a galloping good decision to bring back mounted horse police patrols after a decade-long absence, Duluth was a different place. The sales and use of synthetic drugs were making downtown gloomier and less safe — or at least seemingly less safe and secure; workers, shoppers, tourists, and others downtown all felt it.

So Ramsay called in the cavalry: a four-horse mounted patrol was re-established to provide a visual deterrent to wrongdoing, especially in downtown.

"One mounted officer is as good as having several officers on foot," Ramsay told the News Tribune Opinion page at the time. "They provide a memorable police presence like no other. In addition, mounted patrols are extremely effective in busy areas. While the perception (of crime and safety) does not match in all cases with actual crime statistics, we need to ensure we are doing all we can to ensure the economic vitality of downtown."

We still need to be doing all we can in that regard. But the Last Place on Earth head shop, the epicenter of Duluth’s synthetic-drug woes, is now long gone. And the two-legged officers in Duluth’s horse patrol clearly are needed elsewhere. The police department’s sex-crimes unit, which handles violence against women and children, has seen a 46 percent increase in cases since 2013, as the News Tribune reported last week. Also, its internet-crimes unit, which focuses on child-pornography cases, has seen a 23 percent increase in referrals over the same time period. Officers have gotten so busy responding to increasing numbers of calls, investigators are having to pick up patrol shifts.

So a decision was made to eliminate Duluth’s mounted patrols and to sell the city’s four equine officers. It’s a decision that correctly prioritizes women, children, and others who are being victimized ahead of horse-led crowd control and improving the Duluth department’s image.

“We have to look at nice versus necessary," Chief Mike Tusken told the News Tribune. "There's a lot of things we can do with officers, but first and foremost we need to focus on advocating and fighting for those who can't fight for themselves.”

Tusken said repeatedly in an interview with the News Tribune’s Tom Olsen that cutting the horse patrol was a “tough decision.”

Not financially tough. The $30,000-a-year cost of feeding and stabling the animals has been covered by grants and tourism-tax dollars. And the patrol’s human officers will be reassigned. Rather, Tusken’s decision is all about making the best and most appropriate use of limited resources.

While its timing can be seen as curious — the popular horse patrol is being eliminated just as Tusken asked the City Council to reduce by more than half a proposed $325,000 cut to his department’s budget next year — it’s the right call. Changing times and new realities demand constant re-evaluations of how public resources are being used.

Sometimes tough, unpopular decisions are necessary.