For the Duluth Police Department, staffing the annual Christmas City of the North Parade typically is a festive occasion.
But Friday's parade was dampened a bit by the farewell appearance of four of its most-visible and popular attractions.
The mounted patrol unit, a frequent sight in recent years at community gatherings and around the downtown and Canal Park area, is being disbanded to free up officers for more-pressing roles across the department, Police Chief Mike Tusken said.
"I love the horses, I love the PR and it is a tremendous community outreach opportunity," he said Friday. "Those are all things I love, but we are in an environment where we have to look at nice versus necessary."
Tusken cited an increase in sexual assault, child abuse and child pornography investigations as a significant factor in what he repeatedly called a "tough decision."
When conducting a needs assessment across the department in light of a tightening city budget, the chief said bolstering the investigative staff proved to be more important than keeping the horses on the street.
"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. "Women and children are being victimized, and we have to advocate for the victims, hold the offenders accountable and keep the public safe."
The four horses - Rocky, Ranger, Maggie and Jimmy - are officially for sale on the city of Duluth's website, with bids closing Monday. They are all long-serving police horses, having come to Duluth when the Three Rivers Park District in the Twin Cities cut its mounted unit for budgetary reasons.
Duluth long maintained a mounted unit before it was eliminated in 2004, when a lease was lost on the St. Croix Substation in Canal Park, where the horses were housed. In 2014, then-Police Chief Gordon Ramsay reintroduced the unit after a 10-year absence, describing their presence as both a crime deterrent and a community policing tool.
The department began with a four dedicated officers assigned to the unit. More recently, there have been two full-time riders with a handful of other officers trained to ride part-time.
Tusken said the horses themselves are not a significant expense - housing and feeding them has been covered by a $30,000 annual allotment from the city's tourism tax fund. But salary and benefits for the equivalent of four full-time positions comes with a price tag of about $400,000 a year.
And while the horses are only used for about six months out of the year, they require year-round care.
"We need to look at return on investment," Tusken said. "They are a resource that we need to feed, pay, exercise 365 days a year, even though we might only use them 182 days."
Tusken said the unit's elimination does mean the loss of an effective tool for crowd control at major events such as Grandma's Marathon or Tall Ships. For day-to-day community policing activities and visibility to tourists, he said the department would deploy more bike patrols.
Tusken said his staff has been stretched thin, with call volume and investigative referrals continuing to creep upward on an annual basis even as they deal with budgetary constraints. In the busy summer months, he has had investigators picking up patrol shifts.
The Sex Crimes, Abuse and Neglect unit, which handles cases involving violence against women and children, has seen a 46 percent increase in cases since 2013, according to the department's 2018 budget proposal.
Meanwhile, the Internet Crimes Against Children unit, which primarily investigates online child pornography cases, has seen a 23 percent increase in referrals over the same time period.
"We know that a high percentage of those people who exchange child pornography will act on or victimize a child," Tusken said. "We have the information about who's doing it through our investigations, but we don't get to all those cases. There's a potential that somebody is going to be victimized because we don't get to it."
On Thursday, the chief asked the City Council to provide $177,500 in relief from a proposed $325,000 cut his department is poised to take next year, which would result in the elimination of the equivalent of 2.5 full-time civilian positions in the records unit.
Tusken expressed concern Friday that the loss of those positions would have a significant impact on department's crime analysis data, which is used to identify hotspots and trends and to assign resources.
"The assumption is that if you're not reducing your sworn staff, all is good," he said. "But what I try to reiterate to people is that your sworn staff is only as good as the information they get. You don't want to be working on last week's criminal intelligence this week."
One bright spot, he said, is the planned implementation of a new records system which will reduce staff time and redundancies. The initiative is expected to cost in excess of $1 million, but will receive $860,000 in funds seized from imprisoned Last Place on Earth owner Jim Carlson.
The new system, however, is not expected to be up and running until 2019.