SARATOGA SPRINGS — The two Saratoga Springs police horses at the “People Over Property” demonstration downtown on Sunday had a new piece of equipment: clear plexiglass face shields.
The shields, meant to provide some facial and eye protection to the horses in case there’s trouble, drew enough attention that city Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton took to Facebook on Monday to defend the shields. Horses have not had them at previous downtown demonstrations tied to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I had several people ask about this yesterday and just want to clarify — out of an abundance of caution, we have had to outfit our mounted patrol unit with face shields for safety,” Dalton wrote.
“The horses are instrumental in crowd control, and as the recent protests in Saratoga have become increasingly aggressive, we need to make sure everyone’s safety is protected –- from the protesters, to our residents, police officers and police horses,” she wrote.
By Tuesday afternoon, Dalton’s post had generated more than 600 comments, ranging from people questioning why she considers the protests to be “increasingly aggressive” to some accusing her of implicitly criticizing the protests, and others criticizing the conduct of protesters.
There have been at least four demonstrations in the city since the police death of George Floyd on May 25 brought new energy to the Black Lives Matter movement, and calls for equity and social justice, across the country.
Sunday’s demonstration closed down several city streets and intersections including Broadway and Lake Avenue. A reporter who was there said some people in the crowd, which exceeded 150, appeared to be speaking confrontationally to the mounted officers, but those people weren’t aiming their aggression at the horses.
“We had several people yesterday come up very close to the horses yelling, screaming and gesticulating,” Dalton wrote in response to one comment on her Facebook post, asking why she called the recent protest “increasingly aggressive.” “We had one person flying a drone directly over their heads.”
Dalton said she believed in the city’s law enforcement officers, and she also believes in the Black Lives Matter movement, and in keeping people safe.
“I also believe in a peaceful right to protest, however yesterday we experienced some of the protesters acting aggressively towards our horses,” she wrote. “I reject that kind of behavior.”
In an interview Tuesday, Dalton said the city is also concerned about the safety of people in the crowd, should the horses get spooked. The shields made their debuts on Sunday, but the horses trained with them for several days before that.
“We really need to prevent the horses from getting hurt, but we also don’t want them to get spooked,” she said.
Dalton said the city’s two horses regularly work in the Caroline Street bar district on weekend nights, and are valuable for crowd control because their height allows the mounted officers to spot trouble that may be developing in a crowd.
“They’re working all the time,” Dalton said. “We use the horses for any mass gathering. It has nothing at all to do specifically with the protesters.”
There have been incidents with police horses in other communities. Albany had a large demonstration in response to Floyd’s death that turned violent on May 30, and at one point a Molotov cocktail landed at the feet of four police horses and burst into flames, but there were no injuries. A Troy man was arrested earlier this month and charged with first-degree attempted assault in connection with that incident.