The incident near the Inner Harbor began with a jubilant 8-year-old reaching from her wheelchair to pet a horse in the Baltimore Police Department's mounted unit. It ended with the horse maiming the girl's hand, according to a $1 million lawsuit filed by her mother.
"The horse did not release its bite and [the girl's] hand had to be ripped from the horse's mouth," says the lawsuit filed by Arianna Jacques' mother, Lisa Gillespie of Queen Anne's County. The left hand of the girl, who has cerebral palsy, "was severely injured with bone showing and needed two surgeries."
The lawsuit — which is being challenged by attorneys for the city — is one of the latest legal entanglements for the Police Department.
A six-month Sun investigation published last fall showed that the city had paid $5.7 million since 2011 in court judgments and settlements related to lawsuits accusing officers of brutality and other misconduct. Gillespie's lawsuit, filed last year, was listed in records that The Baltimore Sun requested from the city detailing all lawsuits filed against police officers in 2013 and 2014.
A city judge recently ordered Gillespie and the city to try to resolve the case in mediation.
According to the lawsuit, the city's mounted unit was providing security and crowd control for the Baltimore Grand Prix in August 2013 when the incident occurred.
Before the incident, Arianna had the full use of only her left hand because of cerebral palsy, the lawsuit says. She used it to communicate and to operate her wheelchair.
According to the lawsuit, when mounted officers approached Arianna and her mother, the child became excited and waved. Officer Arturo Garvin told the girl that she could pet his horse, Buster, and lowered its head. Garvin assured Gillespie and Arianna that the horse was friendly.
For no apparent reason, the horse clamped down on the girl's hand.
Gillespie, who lives in Centreville and is represented by attorneys Michael H. Berestonof Annapolis and Robert Joyce of Baltimore, accuses Garvin, a seven-year veteran, of gross negligence and negligence for failing to prevent the horse from attacking without cause, according to the lawsuit. Gillespie also accuses the agency of hiring employees without adequate skills to oversee police horses.
Garvin declined to comment, and Baltimore police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said the department would not comment on pending litigation.
A law firm hired by the city to defend officers has responded in legal filings by saying that Gillespie and Arianna took a risk by petting the horse.
Garvin was not negligent and did not have an "evil motive, influenced by hate, to deliberately and willfully injure" the child, wrote attorney Merrilyn E. Ratliff of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston. Gillespie and Arianna "requested to touch a large animal, chose to touch it near its mouth, and assumed the risk of that animal's behavior," Ratliff said.
One of Arianna's lawyers disagreed. "Garvin is just as grossly negligent in this behavior as would a patrol officer, working in the crowd during the Grand Prix, to allow minor children to touch his service weapon," Joyce wrote in a court filing.
Garvin began riding horses 15 years ago as a hobby while he was in the military, according to a televised interview at the 2013 Preakness.
Although Gillespie is seeking $1 million, Maryland's Local Government Tort Claims Act generally caps damages against local governments at $200,000 per claim. The statutory cap can be exceeded when there are multiple claims in a lawsuit, and if there is malice, the cap may not apply.
Mounted officers serve as ceremonial representatives and goodwill ambassadors of the department, but the horses also help officers break up disturbances and chase criminals. Children sometimes ask to pet the horses and chat with the officers.
Baltimore police would not discuss procedures that mounted unit officers use when the horses interact with people.
But a retired Cleveland officer discussed the way he handled his horse in public settings.
Shawn Howard, who spent 10 years in that city's mounted unit, said he always told people to pet the side of the horse's head and not reach near the mouth.
Howard said he would always jump off the horse to give it food when residents offered treats. He put the food in his extended palm so the horse wouldn't grab his hand.
It's common for horses to "nip" people, Howard said, and officers sometimes don't have enough time to react when people raise their arms.
"It happens so fast when people put their hands near the mouth," he said. "The horse immediately thinks he's getting a treat and bites the hand."
A website devoted to Baltimore police history — going back decades — shows dozens of photos of children and adults posing with and petting the horses.
Baltimore's mounted unit has a storied tradition as one of the oldest continuously operated mounted police divisions in the United States.
The unit, formed 127 years ago by a Confederate soldier who served under Stonewall Jackson, initially enforced the city's 6-mph speed limit for horse-drawn carriages. As late as 1995, the department still had a horse named after the general.
In his voluminous history of the city Police Department, W.M. Hackley devoted 66 pages to the unit, including photos of officers patrolling after the Great Fire of 1904 and during the riots of the 1960s, as well as participating in parades. In 1994, a quarterhorse named Bozman died after running into a parked car while chasing a burglary suspect.
The unit had 24 draft horses in the 1980s, but that number dropped to eight in 2013.
Hard times hit the unit in 2009. The Great Recession forced the department to trim expenses from its $312 million budget. But groups like the Baltimore Community Foundation and the nonprofit Police Foundation raised money to feed and care for the horses. Schoolchildren also sold cookies and lemonade to raise cash.
In 2010, the 7-Eleven convenience store chain even donated $5,000 and gained naming rights to a purebred Percheron once known as Blackie. It became Slurpee, named after the store's frozen beverage.