On a hazy Wednesday morning inside the barn at the South Shore Cultural Center, a group of Chicago cops dodge the outside fog and huddle around a dark bay-colored horse named Knight, a saddle at the ready.
The public might recognize Knight on the streets of Downtown Michigan Avenue, at a Cubs game or at an outdoor festival as working with the Chicago Police Department’s Mounted Patrol. But in the barn among the officers, he is recognized for his namesake, Officer John C. Knight, a former Chicago Police cop who was shot and killed in 1999.
Knight was one of the first horses to be named after a Chicago police officer killed in the line of duty. Now, 21 of the 28 Mounted Patrol horses housed in this stable carry on the names and legacies of fallen officers.
The idea began with Officer Joey Cistaro, a Chicago cop on the Mounted Patrol force who previously served in the military and was inspired by its commemoration of fallen soldiers. He suggested honoring fallen cops in a similar fashion.
“It’s a reminder to the citizens that our job is dangerous,” Officer Cistaro said.
Now, as the horses are saddled up for duty, their riders are reminded daily of the lives and deaths of the officers for whom the horses are named. Many of them are remembered personally.
“The memory I have of John (Knight) is the love he had for his family,” Lt. Bauer said of Officer Knight. “And that’s something that stays with me”.
Many of these cops’ cases might even sound familiar. The deaths of officers William Fahey and Richard O’Brien, for example, made headline news when they were gunned down by notorious killers Andrew and Jackie Wilson in 1982.
“These two horses came into the barn together,” said trainer John Schaffer of the horses named in their honor. “So we were able to name two horses after two partners that were killed together.”
The role of the Mounted Patrol goes back to 1974, and while these particular horses serve to honor lost officers, they also serve a police function.
“A police officer on foot trying to push the crowd back, it can heat up a little bit,” said Lt. Bauer.
Public attitude changes when it comes to the Mounted Patrol, he said, as often time’s people will come up and try to pet the horses.
“It really de-escalates a lot of situations,” said Lt. Bauer.
For the Mounted Patrol, working with the horses is no walk in the park. The horses' training lasts anywhere from one to sixth months, and officers must go through an often-grueling 14-week training period.
“Injuries range from broken ribs to broken tailbones to broken noses,” said Lt. Bauer, “It’s very physically and mentally demanding.”
The mounted officers said often people on the streets approach them and ask about the origin of the horses’ names. And while some of these officers’ stories are still on the publics’ consciousness, others’ names have faded with time.
“Sometimes people forget, the public forgets and maybe even sometimes the organization forgets and that’s something we don’t every want to lose, we can’t forget the sacrifice they made to the department,” said Lt. Bauer.
And while the Mounted Patrol takes pride in riding the horses named in honor of their fellow cops, they agree that the list of names is too long.
“If we ran out of names that would be the best thing,” said officer Cistaro. “That would be the best thing.”