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By Lawrence Ragonese
The Star-Ledger

MORRIS COUNTY, N.J. - It's a beautiful summer morning. You're driving on an open country road. Your foot pushes down on the accelerator and the car speeds up, wind blowing your hair.
Then, you notice the horses.
Two of them in the distance, standing on the side of the scenic road, swishing their tails. Quite a lovely scene. Until you get a bit closer and see the riders are wearing uniforms - and one is holding a device of some sort. Nabbed. By a Morris County Park Police radar patrol.
In an effort to keep the narrow, winding roads safe in the county's expansive 18,000-acre park system, park police have taken to horseback.
The department's four-officer mounted unit strategically pick roads in some of the busier parks - especially Lewis Morris County Park in Morris, Mendham and Harding townships, Hedden County Park in Dover, Randolph and Mine Hill, and the Mahlon Dickerson Reservation in Jefferson - to keep drivers from exceeding speed limits that range from 15 to 25 mph.
"The idea is to slow traffic down," said David Helmer, executive director of the Morris County Park Commission. "You are inside a park. People are walking and running, riding bikes and horses. You want them to be safe.
"And isn't it better to slow them down with patrols on horses rather than have them sit idling in a car and using up gas?"
On a recent Tuesday morning, Sgt. Michael Puccetti and Patrolman Christopher Boyko set up radar operations at Lewis Morris Park. Puccetti, a 21-year park system veteran, rode Padre, a 28-year-old quarter horse. Boyko, who has worked for the park police for nine years, was on Zeus, a 15-year-old Oldenburg-Thoroughbred cross.
Armed with a portable Stalker radar gun, the officers, sporting black-and-white helmets and black riding boots, parked their horses on a hill near Doe Meadow and monitored traffic.
"It's a surprise to people when they see us, no doubt about it," Boyko said. "But we're not out here to hammer anyone with a ticket unless they are going really fast. These are mostly good people coming to use the park. We just want to slow them down."
"We're the friendly cops," Puccetti said with a laugh.
Morris County is one of two counties in the state, along with Camden County, to have a park police department. It is one of only a few police agencies in the state to employ mounted radar patrols. Passaic and Bergen counties also have mounted units in their sheriff's departments that conduct radar checks and make vehicle stops. They train regularly with Morris County's equestrian team.
Morris County's mounted unit, housed in stables behind the park commission's Fosterfields Living Historical Farm in Morris Township, includes six horses that are used to patrol inaccessible areas of the park system, according to Park Police Chief William Huyler, who is a trained rider.
Horses are especially effective in dealing with riders of all-terrain vehicles, which are illegal in county parks, and motorcycle riders, said Huyler. They allow police to more quickly traverse the woods to get to difficult-to-reach places. In addition, they offer a more imposing police presence in some situations, he said.
On a recent patrol, Puccetti and Boyko positioned themselves on a main park road at Lewis Morris, a short distance from county Route 510. Their well-behaved horses stood quietly, waiting for action.
As a car came over the hill, Puccetti held up the radar gun and aimed it at the vehicle.
"This one is flying," said Boyko, as Puccetti quickly moved Padre into position on the road to intercept the red Acura.
A startled young male driver wearing a Yankees cap brought the car to a halt as Boyko rode up to his driver's side window.
"Do you know what the speed limit is here?" the officer asked.
"Twenty-five," the driver responded.
"Do you know how fast you were going?" said Boyko.
"Twenty-five?" answered the driver.
"No, 39," said Boyko, as he took the man's license, registration and insurance information. The two officers then moved into position behind the car, carefully looking into it while checking out the driver's background via radio communication with the police dispatch office.
The Convent Station man had a 2007 unsafe operator citation, but no other record. So the officers issued a written warning and gave him a verbal admonition to "slow it down."
That was the norm for the morning. But the mounted duo said they occasionally come across major offenders who have to be ticketed, whose speeds defy safety, including a motorcyclist who hit 68 mph, said Boyko.
"Drivers just don't expect police to be here, on these roads," said Puccetti. "I think that once they get off the main roads, they think it's free and clear for driving. But we're watching."

Wire Service
 
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