By Anthony M. Destefano New York Newsday
Modern crime-fighting may rely on CSI techniques, computers and social media, but NYPD Officer Colin McCarty’s tools are rooted in the 19th century.
He holds one of the department’s most specialized and arcane job specialties: harness maker for the esteemed mounted unit.
The unusual job choice was inspired by McCarty’s late grandfather Michael McGee. For more than three decades, McGee fashioned bridles, harnesses and other leather accoutrements for the steeds that have been part of NYPD tradition dating back to the Civil War era.
The work is still almost entirely done by hand. Wielding old-fashioned awls and cutters, McCarty, 40, of Massapequa, has turned English leather into sturdy riding gear for the past four years.
New York City’s weather extremes constantly put his skills to the test.
“I have to do a good job because what I make controls 1,200 pounds of muscle, and I can’t have that fail,” he said Friday at his office on the west side of Manhattan at Pier 76. That’s where some of the NYPD’s 60 horses are stabled.
During superstorm Sandy, police horses with names like Dominick, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Harley had to be evacuated before the stable flooded.
The first officers to ride for the NYPD in 1871 were Civil War veterans, and their old riding tack — bridles, reins and related items — still serves as the template for today’s mounted unit.
Operating out of a workshop in Queens, McCarty uses bladed strap-cutters to carefully slice through the leather. He stitches by hand using an awl, as harness makers have done for centuries.
For a touch of flair, the edges of bridles are dyed black. Water is used sparingly to help give the leather “memory,” as McCarty calls it. Occasionally, he will use a machine to finish the stitching on the decorative browband. Saddles are made by outside companies.
Cow leather imported from England is used, McCarty said, because it’s considered in the equestrian world to be the finest for making tack. About a dozen sheets are imported every year.
Initially assigned for eight years to the 108th Precinct in Long Island City, McCarty credits his grandfather’s nudges with getting him interested in the mounted unit. McCarty said his predecessor schooled him in the art of leather craft for 18 months.
“I wasn’t a very handy person to begin with,” he said.
McCarty’s got the hang of it now, holding one of the most unusual jobs in the department.
“Becoming a police officer, you would never think you would be making bridles for the mounted unit,” he said.
McCarty also went through the NYPD’s nearly four-month-long mounted unit training course.
He said his grandfather had discouraged him from taking riding lessons earlier in life, telling him, “The police department will teach you how to ride their way.”