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Excitement Mounted on the Trail
Have you been wondering what those horses are doing on the Trail and in other parks? We asked Lt. Todd Smith with the Parks and Lake Patrol of the Austin Police Department (APD) why we sometimes see mounted officers out and about. We learned why the mounted officers are an important part of patrols and about the different aspects of Lt. Smith’s department. We also learned why he personally loves Austin and the Trail.
How long have you been in Austin and what brought you here?
I was born in Austin and am a fourth generation Austinite. My great grandmother used to tell me the story of arriving as a little girl on a covered wagon from Rome, Georgia. My grandmother attended the one and only Austin High in the 40’s. My father went to McCallum and my mother went to Travis High School. My father, my sons and I were all born at St David’s Hospital.
Tell us more about your unique role with the Austin Police Department?
I’ve been with the Austin Police Department for 15 years. I supervise six units within the Austin Police Department: Parks Patrol, Lake Patrol, Mounted Patrol, Special Events, Executive Protection, and the Control Booth at Headquarters. My team is responsible for the security and safety of over 17,500 acres of park and preserve land, as well as over 21 miles of Lake Austin, all of Lady Bird Lake, Walter Long Lake (Decker), and a large part of the Colorado River east of Pleasant Valley. The Special Events unit also helps coordinate events in the city that require road closures and anticipate large crowds. All of the triathlons and runs on the city streets are approved through this office.
How does the APD support the Trail?
Officers are responsible for patrolling the Trail regularly on bikes. I require officers in my command to maintain a high level of fitness to be able to respond anywhere on the Trail, greenbelt, and water for emergencies. It takes a high level of fitness to be able to ride the trails in temperatures over 100 degrees with bulletproof vests and all of the gear that we need. The majority of calls on the Trail deal with homeless camps, dogs off leash, truancy, alcohol violations and theft.
Why did the APD introduce horses to the Trail?
We introduced the Mounted Patrol unit to the Trail in the middle of last year. Since then, they have cleared out numerous homeless camps that have been concealed from view, and are able to get through very thick vegetation and terrain where foot/bike officers are unable to access. Our horses are accustomed to huge crowds and interact frequently with humans, dogs, bikes, etc. It has been a welcome treat for not only the horses, but also the officers to spend time patrolling the parks. Our horses train 40 hours a week with an experienced police officer in the saddle and aren’t easily spooked. Our officers take care to keep safety a top priority and remove any “deposits” the horses make from the Trail when they see it.
We’ve really enjoyed the positive responses from the folks on the Trail when they see us. Our horses love having their pictures taken!
What first brought you to the Trail?
I remember going to Barton Springs as a child as well as watching my grandfather fish for catfish. I always wanted to take off down the Trail and disappear, rather than fish. As I grew older, I would make regular visits to the Trail; I’d park at Austin High, and run the loop that I heard calling me that moment. I tried mountain biking on the trail, but I prefer running. I spend enough time on the trail on my bike while I’m on duty, so I really enjoy my quiet runs out of uniform. I was on the SWAT team as a sergeant for over two years. I was on the Trail just about every morning at 7am, and was always amazed at how many people are running in the dark, in the rain, in the cold…and in the hot summer afternoons when it’s over 100! I really enjoyed our team runs, which we did one morning a month for training. It was great running in formation and having all the people say hello to us and smile.
What’s your favorite Trail memory?
Two years ago, I was running eastbound from the footbridge below Barton Springs. I don’t run with an iPod or any other music player. I like to hear the sounds of nature and really let my mind wander. I looked to my left and saw an osprey with a huge carp in its talons. The osprey was struggling to stay in flight because the fish was so big. I wanted to point it out to everyone around me, but every person I saw was either talking on the phone, wearing an iPod, or looking down. I realized that this was a special moment and I wanted it to be just for me. Since then, I’m always looking (OK, searching) for the great wildlife that crawls or flies through our great downtown area. I’ve seen a juvenile bald eagle, red tailed hawks, kingfishers, many snakes…the list goes on and on.
What’s the best part of your job?
I really enjoy nature and being outside, and I’m fortunate that my current assignment allows me to do both. Everyday it’s a race to finish the administrative duties that my rank [requires] to keep up with so I can get out of the office. Not many people can say that they have a mountain bike and keys to the boat in their office and get paid to work on both. I’ve got a great team that works with me and we all enjoy being outside and responsible to the citizens that love the same things. We enjoy solving problems that ultimately make our parks safer and more enjoyable for everyone.