Lisa Sweatt grew up in a small Vermont town. She has always loved horses and got her first horse when she was nine years old in the fourth grade. “He was free,” she said. His name was Friday and he’d come with that name, which was kept.
In high school Sweatt decided she wanted to be a police officer. She said, “I like to be busy, busy outside.” She liked challenge and adventure, and a law enforcement career seemed to hold the ingredients she was looking for.
While attending Fordham University in New York City, majoring in sociology and criminal justice, Sweatt was also on their riding team, and was able to continue her connection with horses. She considered applying to the mounted unit of the NYPD, where she could combine her two main interests in one job.
But after giving that idea some more thought, she wasn’t really sure that she wanted to live in such a largecity. Sweatt’s brother told her that the Portland Police Department had a mounted unit, which seemed to be a better “fit.” She took and passed Portland’s test before graduating from college in 1988, enabling her to make a smooth transition to reach her goal, starting at the Police Academy that August.
When Sweatt was ready to hit the streets in Portland she was put into the drug unit. She said she was told, “You’re a girl, and nobody knows you.” She spent six months as an undercover officer buying drugs.
She said that she had a roommate who was a friend from Vermont. That was a good thing, because while she was working her undercover stint she couldn’t be seen associating with police officers, making that a very solitary existence.
After that experience, Sweatt went into patrol. “Then I was just like everybody else,” which was just fine with her.
In 1991 Sweatt began her thirteen years in Portland’s mounted unit, where she had five different horses during that period. For most of that time there were two or three horses in the unit.
Some officers had never ridden before and they were sent to Boston for training. Others, like Sweatt, did have riding backgrounds. She stated, “It’s easy to ride a horse slowly around a ring. It’s another thing when you’ve got a horse at High and Congress, with cars and mailboxes and lots of people.”It takes probably a good month to train a horse for working the city streets. Sweatt said, “You start in quieter places, like Deering Oaks or the Western Promenade, before venturing to Congress Street.”
She said you also put new riders on horses that have been around longer.
Sweatt’s horse got hit by a car one night on Fore Streetin the Old Port. The drunk driver didn’t stop, but was caught a few blocks away. The horse wasbadly frightened but not injured.
The mounted unit worked from May through Halloween and during the winter months the officers worked patrol cars. The horses went to a local stable and Sweatt said, “I would go out and ride during the winter.”
During the warm months when thehorses were in service they were kept in stables, the horse barn near the Expo on Park Avenue. “Officers had to do everything,” said Sweatt, “even on days off. Occasionally we had volunteers to help.”
In 1999 local Bayside author Susan McCloskey wrote a nonfiction book for an educational publisher geared to students in the lower grades. Titled Police Horse, it features Lisa Sweatt and her horse Spree in words and photos, detailing the job.
The summer of 2003 was Sweatt’s last ride as a mounted officer in Portland. At that time her horse was Harry, named for the businessman who provided the police department with the money for his purchase. Harry was bought in Canada in 2000, and he worked the street for three years with the diminutive Lisa Sweatt riding him and caring for him. Harry weighed 1,500 pounds and was part draft horse. Sweatt said the new trend was to use big horses because they’re calm, they can stand on pavement all day, and they can carry heavy weight. Her nickname for Harry was “Cruiser,” because he was black and white, like a policecar.
When Cruiser left the department he went to live at Pineland, in New Gloucester, at a therapeutic riding program called Riding to the Top. The program serves children and adults with disabilities with ages ranging from 3 to 80. That didn’t mean that Sweatt and Cruiser ended their relationship. She went to visit Cruiser and to ride him for the entire time he lived in New Gloucester.
When Cruiser developed arthritis in his front legs in 2007 the organization offered him to Sweatt, since they knew she wanted him. And he’s been living happily ever after since then. He even has another horse to keep him company—Henry. Henry belongs to Sweatt’s niece and he also lives at the Sweatt abode. When asked if there might be any jealousy between the horses, Sweatt said, “I’m the alpha in the barn; Cruiser is next.” She stated, “They’re herd animals. They like company.”
The disbanding of mounted units occurred in many American cities, mostly attributed to the costs associated with maintaining horses. That was not the reason Portland’s unit was terminated. There weren’t enough people interested in doing the job, which is a lot of extra work for the
officers involved. Not enough officers were willing to commit themselves to partnering with a horse.
Many large cities still have mounted units, including LA; Albany, NY; Chicago; and Portland, OR.
Philadelphia got rid of their mounted patrol in 2004, but just brought it back in the spring of 2012.
Sweatt stated, “The mounted unit was a huge benefit to the city. I talked to more people in one day than in a week spent in a police car.” She says, “It’s unfortunate that it was disbanded,” although she understands the reasons it happened. Many people agree that the public relations aspect of horses on the streets is huge. People like to speak to officers on horses; children ask if they may pet the animals; and horses are a major boon when it comes to crowd control. The visibility aspect is important, from the view of both the public and the rider.
Sweatt has been a detective since 2006, a job that has her handling cases involving domestic violence. She enjoys her work, saying, “I get to follow through and see the end result. It’s satisfying to see a case through.” There won’t be any shortage of work for Sweatt in this category, with Portland receiving 1,400 calls a year pertaining to domestic violence.
During her time off, she hangs outwith Cruiser. In the winter the horse gets fed four times a day, eating hay and fortified grain. Weekends are spent mucking stalls and fixing fences. She says she finds it relaxing, and adds, “It’s a labor of love.”