Merseyside Police horse sponsorship 'thin end of the wedge'
Corporate sponsorship deals struck by Merseyside Police's mounted section may be "the thin end of the wedge", the Police Federation has warned.
The force has raised more than £50,000 through sponsorship arrangements, including with Everton Football Club, and said it was a "sign of the times".
Gloucestershire Constabulary said it was considering a similar scheme.
Four of the 17 police forces in England with mounted units have disbanded them for financial reasons since 2012.
Merseyside Police introduced the current sponsorship scheme in April last year following a series of budget cuts that threatened the future of its 133-year-old mounted section.
"It is unusual but it's a sign of the times that we're facing the austerity measures have hit the service hard and the alternative is basically the closure of the department," said Sgt Danny Harris, who works in the unit.
Corporate sponsors are offered a number of packages, which include the ability to name a police horse, to have a company's logo printed on a horse's saddle and to have a meal with the chief constable at the Grand National, held at Merseyside course Aintree in April.
"It's not to facilitate the wages of the police officers. It's the cost of running, veterinary care, feed, things like that and bedding," Sgt Harris told BBC Inside Out North West.
The scheme has attracted a number of sponsors, including Everton, the University of Liverpool and Baileys Horse Feeds, and generated £50,982 to date.
"It just doesn't sit right with me," said Police Federation operational policing spokesman Simon Kempton.
While Mr Kempton accepted that forces across the country were having to make difficult decisions because of funding cuts, he worried sponsorship could lead to real or perceived conflicts of interest.
"I worry about this potentially being the thin end of the wedge and ask where it stops," he said.
Using Freedom of Information requests, the BBC has established that four English police forces - Cleveland, Essex, Humberside and Nottinghamshire - have disbanded their mounted units since 2012, citing financial pressures.
Rod Hansen, Chief Constable of Gloucestershire Constabulary which re-established a mounted unit in 2016, said he was considering using corporate sponsorship to fund doubling the unit in size, to eight horses.
"In an ideal world, it would be nice to be fully self-sufficient, yes," said Mr Hansen, who is also the mounted police spokesman for the National Police Chiefs Council.
Corporate sponsorship was "the most pragmatic way" of funding the unit, he said, arguing the potential for conflicts of interest could be managed with strict controls.
Mounted police remained vital to modern policing, Mr Hansen said, with a recent study finding they encouraged members of the public to interact with police on patrol, helping build better relations and increasing the flow of information between them.
Everton FC intends to hold a competition among local primary schools to suggest a name for the Merseyside Police horse it has sponsored.
Dave Lewis, head of security for the club, said it relied on mounted police to help manage crowds during match days.
"Significantly, that is one of the areas that they could say 'we can no longer resource it' and I think that'll be a sad day, as it would for any part of the police force, when they turn up and say 'I'm sorry, we can't come'," Mr Lewis said.