Sturgis Police prepare for atypical Rally

Sturgis Assistant Police Chief Sean Briscoe shows some of the protective equipment officers will use during this year’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Pioneer photo by Deb Holland

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STURGIS — The 80th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally will be uncharted territory for the community of Sturgis and especially its police department, says the Sturgis Police Chief.

It took weeks of research and soul searching for the Sturgis City Council to even determine that the city would indeed host the Rally this year amid a global pandemic. Added to that is turmoil nationwide over police brutality and an atmosphere that has brought out calls to defund, downsize or abolish police departments.

Sturgis Police Chief Geody VanDewater said the community and the department have high expectations for members of the Sturgis police force.

He said it is unfortunate, but in many professions, not just law enforcement, there are good people, and not so good people representing that profession. For that reason, it’s important not to paint police with a broad brush, he said.

VanDewater believes the Sturgis Police Department does a good job of vetting candidates for officer positions.

“We have a rigorous hiring process. We try to weed out the bad ones when we can,” he said.

The current attitude about police harbored by some in this country came after the death of George Floyd who died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes.

Could a George Floyd incident happen in Sturgis?

“You can never vouch for what is going to happen. An incident like that could happen anywhere,” VanDewater said. “But it’s a way different temperament in law enforcement here in rural western South Dakota than it is in a big city.”

VanDewater characterizes his department’s attitude as warm and hospitable.

“We’ve noticed that more people than usually have come up and thanked us. It’s nice to know you are appreciated,” he said.

The Sturgis Police Department strives to be friendly to everyone they encounter, even during the Rally, VanDewater said.

“I don’t care who it is, what it is or where it is, we treat people with professionalism,” he said.

But VanDewater knows that some who will come to Sturgis for the Rally may not have an appreciative attitude toward law enforcement.

“The Rally brings people from all walks of life. Not everybody likes the job we do, but we will do our job and maintain a high level of professionalism,” he said.

VanDewater said the officers will do whatever it takes to keep the peace during the Rally which can bring anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 visitors to the Black Hills for the 10-day run of the event.

 “If you violate the law, you will be held accountable.  We don’t want to fight with people. We don’t want to wrestle with people. We just want to take you to jail the easiest way possible,” he said.

Because of the pandemic, VanDewater foresees that this year’s Rally will have lower numbers than in years past, even though this is an anniversary year. And because people across the country have been cooped up for months in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, they may be ready to party hard.

“If the bars are really busy, someone may get one drink an hour. But if we have less people this year they can drink more,” he said. “More than likely we will be busier this year because of the lower numbers.”

While policing the Rally, VanDewater, his staff and the temporary officers hired for the event will not be wearing face masks. They will have them available and may use them if they need to enter a crowded area, VanDewater said.

Anyone who has been to the Rally knows that it can be hot and humid on any given day in early to mid-August. Wearing masks full time would be difficult, VanDewater said.

“If we wear masks, I’ll have guys dropping like flies,” he said.

The department will issue the proper protective equipment to the officers – masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.

“When they are dealing with people if they can’t maintain the social distance they will have a mask that they can utilize,” VanDewater said.

He said he believes this will be an interesting Rally.

 “From citizens to law enforcement, and first responders to business owners, there will be guidelines they are going to be trying to follow,” VanDewater said.

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