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December 12, 2006   Email to Friend 

Alfa Agent Saddles Up For Community Service
Amy Presley

Robinson and his trusty steed, Flash.
At the end of the work week when many people are heading home for a relaxing weekend, G. Chris Robinson is trading in his tie for a badge and hitting the streets, looking for trouble - literally.

The Mobile, Ala., Alfa agent is a member of the Mobile Police Department's Mounted Reserve Unit, and he and his horse Flash often spend their weekend evenings patrolling downtown Mobile.

An Alfa agent since 1984, Robinson became involved with the police department about a year ago, but his love of horses is decades old. He's owned and ridden horses since he was in the 10th grade.

"With my Alfa job, all day I'm nice and friendly with my customers. But when I'm on patrol, I can be tough when I have to," he said. "Up until two or three years ago, I never knew you could be involved with the police department as a civilian. I wanted to do something constructive. I wanted to give back to the community."

The Mounted Reserve Unit is a group of 20 volunteers who provide additional support to the police department's four full-time mounted officers. Members of the unit are required to work about eight hours a month, usually Friday and Saturday nights. They primarily assist with traffic and pedestrian control and enforcement.

Sometimes they work longer hours, providing additional crowd control during major events such as Mardi Gras, Bay Fest, the Mobile County Fair and football games.

After passing a preliminary background check, Robinson was approved to take the required training courses to become a certified member of the unit.

In addition, the reserve officers and their horses must complete a two-week sensory training course, dubbed "Mardi Gras" school. Horses are exposed to loud noises, distractions and other simulations - ranging from firecrackers and police sirens to walking in water and over platforms - to desensitize the horse to the conditions they may encounter.

Mobile Police Sgt. Eddie Carr, who heads the mounted unit, said the sensory school is pretty intense because the officer has to learn to control the horse in situations the horse is not used to. The rider and the horse have to learn to work together.

"The horse's first instinct is to run from anything that scares him," Carr said. "There has to be oneness between the officer and the horse. If there is no trust, then it won't work."

Fortunately, Robinson and his 7-year-old quarter horse have that bond of trust that allows them to successfully complete their job. But even Flash was reluctant to complete some of the training exercises at first, Robinson said.

"Now, Flash will ride right into a downtown parade and not be fazed at all by the loud noises or crowd of people," he said. The training has equipped Robinson with the tools and skills necessary to react appropriately to any situation, enabling him to "think on his feet." Volunteer officers must learn how to detain and handcuff an individual from horseback.

"We're not supposed to get off the horse because if we do, we lose control," he said. "We always have to be in control of both the horse and situation. We have to be firm and authoritative at all times."

The officers do not carry firearms, only a baton, but they do wear bullet-proof vests. They usually work in pairs and are equipped with radios. A sworn officer is usually nearby to assist if a situation arises, he said. While Robinson enjoys the work he does with the Mobile police, he does admit that it can be dangerous.

Robinson recalls one incident where he had to detain a Mardi Gras reveler for public drunkenness. The man was escorted from the area but returned to the festival a few nights later and again created a disturbance. Robinson again helped detain the man. When a sworn officer arrived to remove the man from the scene and "patted him down" they discovered the man was carrying two guns.

"I can't think of a time when I was really scared doing this but thinking back on incidents later really makes you think about what could have happened," Robinson said. "That guy could have pulled out those guns at any point before the sworn officer arrived. But I think that I am a lot braver than I ever thought I could be, and I know that is because of the training."

In June, Robinson was elected as Mounted Reserve Unit president. In his position he helps coordinate the reserve officers' schedules to meet the police department's needs. Carr said the police greatly appreciate the efforts of Robinson and the reserve unit.

"The unit helps us a lot. We have a manpower shortage with only four regular mounted officers so we really need their help," he said. "Chris is always here when we need him and he has been a good president. Sometimes we get a call saying we are needed at a certain time. Chris always makes sure we can get someone to cover the shift."

So how does Robinson manage to balance his career as an Alfa agent with his family time and volunteer work?

At home, Robinson's wife Kathy keeps a calendar up-to-date with all of the family's activities and obligations. They have two daughters, Courtney, 12, and Kayley, 8.

At the office, CSR Belinda Brock keeps track of Robinson's appointments with clients and other Alfa meetings. And fortunately the police department usually posts the volunteer patrol schedules two to four weeks ahead of time so Robinson can plan accordingly. Working with the police officers hasn't been bad for business either.

"Some of the officers are now Alfa Insurance customers, and they all think of me as the resident insurance expert," Robinson said, laughing.

In addition, Robinson thinks his volunteer work with the police department has helped him do a better job as an insurance agent because he's developed a greater awareness of what's going on in his city.

"You see a lot with police work that you don't as an insurance agent," he explained. "My clients live comfortable lives that are very similar to mine. On patrol, I see the opposite end of the spectrum - I rarely see people getting into trouble that aren't unemployed or on drugs. I could stay in my bubble and never see that end of it, but being able to see both sides keeps me more balanced."

It also gives Robinson a stronger appreciation for what he has and the opportunities Alfa has given him to make the kind of life he chooses for his family.

"I see that the paid officers don't have it like I have. They are on a fixed salary and can't set goals like I can as an Alfa agent," he said. "It really makes me appreciate what I have and the company I work for."

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