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Just five people have been ticketed this year by Veterans Affairs police at the VA in Hot Springs. Only one person has been cited at the Fort Meade campus near Sturgis. 

That's the way it should be, Kendra Knight, captain of the Black Hills Health Care System VA police, said recently at the Fort Meade campus. 

"We don't write a lot of tickets. Our objective isn't ticket numbers. We really want these veterans to come out here and get their care," said Knight, one of 26 officers and four administrators/dispatchers who oversee safety and security at the Hot Springs and Fort Meade campuses, community clinics, and the Black Hills, Fort Meade and Hot Springs national cemeteries. 

"We're geared toward de-escalation and voluntary compliance," she said. "We're very customer-service oriented and instead of arresting, writing tickets, going hands-on, we want to engage the veteran, find out what's going on, what's causing this situation right now."

Black Hills VA officers can relate to the people they serve since they are also all veterans, said Knight, a 39-year-old Rapid City resident who served in the Air Force. At least two officers per campus rotate between foot and vehicle patrols 24/7 and whether someone is cited for an offense or not is "absolutely situational," she said. 

It's illegal to be drunk or high on campus, but "we are a treatment facility as well," Knight said. "So If I'm coming here as a veteran and I'm like, 'I need help, I'm addicted to drugs and alcohol,' I don't think it's appropriate to write a ticket all the time."

Knight said she will first let the veteran know that it's illegal to be intoxicated on campus, give them a verbal warning and tell them how to get help. A citation, however, might be warranted if someone shows up drunk multiple times, is threatening others or refuses treatment. 

When police do give citations, most are for being intoxicated on campus, alcohol possession and disorderly conduct, Knight said. 

Federal law outlines specific VA facility-related crimes that have fines ranging from $15 for parking illegally to $500 for breaking into locked areas, purposely damaging government property and defacing gravestones, according to a Code of Federal Regulation 1.218. Other crimes — such as DUIs, drug or alcohol possession, and bringing weapons to campus — require that people show up to the federal courthouse in Rapid City so a judge can determine a fine and/or jail time, Knight said. Anyone given a ticket can contest it in court. 

One man was cited for being drunk late at night and into the early morning at the Hot Springs Campus in October 2018, according to his ticket posted to PACER, the federal court records website. The man had a .202-percent blood alcohol content level (the legal limit is .08 percent) and said he had been drinking in town, the ticket says. It's unclear if the man was given the option to leave campus, if he'd been asked to leave in the past or if he was causing a disturbance. 

The man came to a plea deal with the federal government last month where he agreed to pay $130 in fines and processing fees, court records show.  

The one ticket issued at Fort Meade in 2019 was for disorderly conduct, according to Teresa Forbes, spokeswoman for the Black Hills VA. Two of the Hot Springs tickets were for being drunk or high on campus while the others were for theft, alcohol/drug possession and damaging government property.

Fort Meade had nine tickets issued in 2018 while Hot Springs had 29, a spike caused by an incident where one patient riled up others, Knight said. Police doled out 10 tickets at the Fort Meade Campus in 2017; data wasn't available for the Hot Springs campus that year. 

People are only detained in an on-campus holding cell if they have a warrant and need to wait until they are picked up by an officer from another jurisdiction, Knight said. People arrested for a major crime, such as a shooting, would be held at a local jail. 

But Knight said there's never been a civilian or police shooting or threatened shooting at Black Hills VA facilities. She said someone once killed themselves at the Hot Springs campus before she arrived in December 2010.

VA police train on de-escalating both situations and all staff are trained in suicide prevention. 

In addition to responding to drug, alcohol and disorderly conduct calls, police may also respond to incidents — such as domestic violence or a runaway — at the campus homes occupied by staff and interns, and non-emergencies such as helping someone enter their locked car or turning off a coffee pot someone left on.

"You wouldn't call Rapid City police if you forgot to turn your coffee pot off at home," Knight said. We're "jacks of all trades."

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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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