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Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Officers ready for a busy rally

STURGIS | Motorcycle riders aren’t the only ones lured back year after year to the Sturgis motorcycle rally.

There’s a cadre of law enforcement officers who arrive along with the thousands of motorcycles.

They come to enforce the law and protect attendees, but they also come because the rally’s pull is irresistible.

“We hire people from eight different states,” said Sturgis Police Chief Jim Bush. A lot of those officers are “repeats,” Bush said. “We give awards each year for 10, 15, 20, 30 years. We even have 35-year people who have been coming here and working this for that long.”

For 357 days a year, the Sturgis Police Department has a regular roster of 15 officers and three civilians on a normal day to keep the community of 6,700 people safe.

This weekend, Sturgis is transformed into a community of 75,000 to 80,000 people that rarely sleeps.

“It mirrors a disaster,” Bush said. For eight days straight, his job never ends. “It never stops. It’s like a long disaster. The only luxury I have is that I’m able to plan for it."

During the rally, Bush’s police force gets considerably larger, but he stops short of giving any details on numbers.

In August, however, when the rally arrives his budget swells to an estimated $300,000 to cover salaries, equipment and other expenses associated with the event. Visiting officers are housed and receive two meals a day. The pay’s “not the best,” according to Bush.

But, that doesn’t deter trained officers from wanting to spend their vacations patrolling Sturgis streets.

“We don’t even advertise for this, it just comes from word of mouth,” Bush said. References from rally veterans also help him find the right people for the job.

“It’s worked pretty good throughout the years,” Bush said.

For the visiting officers, working the rally is not just about earning a little extra money, Bush said.

“A lot of them just come back for the camaraderie … with the officers here, the officers they work with from the sheriff’s department and the Highway Patrol,” Bush said.

And, don’t forget the thousands of people wandering up and down the streets this week. Many of those faces become familiar.

“They get to know people,” Bush said. “It’s not unlike the bikers, it’s kind of a reunion thing. It’s like that with the cops, too. They get a lot of friends out of this thing, too.”

Bush has a finely orchestrated system for handling his community’s brief transformation into a metropolis.

“I can tell every hour where every officer, what area they are in … within a block,” Bush said.

Several years ago, to increase his officers’ visibility during the rally, Bush started issuing them light gray polo shirts. The shirts stand out well against the field of black that is typical rally attire. They also create the impression that officers are everywhere, he said.

The majority of people attending the rally are law-abiding citizens. Last year, Sturgis officers made less than 500 contacts with people in eight days and roughly 300 of those were for parking tickets, Bush said.

“That’s not much," he said.

Rally visitors come from communities with similar laws, Bush said. People understand that public displays of nudity, or drinking on the street, are as against the law in Sturgis as it would be at home.

Not everyone enforcing the law during the rally wears the Sturgis Police Department’s gray shirt.

The Meade County Sheriff’s Office, the South Dakota Highway Patrol and several federal agencies are on duty, Bush said.

“Just about everyone of the alphabet people are represented in one form or another,” Bush said. The smooth working relationship between all of the agencies seems to be better at Sturgis than it is in other places, he said. “Everyone pitches in and it works well.”

It takes the cooperation of all the agencies to make the rally a success, he said.

Meade County deputies increase their presence in the county, but the most significant change for the sheriff’s office is seen at the jail where anyone arrested in the county will eventually wind up, according to chief deputy Tom Wilts.

“Most of the people coming to the rally don’t want a problem,” Wilts said. “A fair amount of them that do end up in our jail just made a poor decision after a day of drinking.”

The jail will process between 500 and 600 people during the rally. More than half will be driving under the influence arrests, he said.

There are some real criminal elements that move through the county during the rally, but the majority of the arrests made involve low level misdemeanors, Wilts said.

“Which is very fortunate, because when we do have a major event we can use the appropriate manpower,” he said.

Bush and Wilts both said the cooperation between all agencies working in Sturgis, Meade County and neighboring counties contributes to the success of the rally.

Over the past 10 years, the rally has spread out to encompass all of the Black Hills, according to Capt. Kevin Karley of the South Dakota Highway Patrol.

Troopers deal primarily with crashes and traffic complaints during the rally. Extra troopers are assigned to the area during the rally.

“We bring in extra crash reconstructionists into the entire Black Hills to assist troopers responding to crashes,” Karley said. Extra troopers will also be scattered around the Black Hills area. “But, we still have a responsibility to the rest of the state and we can’t drain other areas, but we do shift resources.”

Last year, troopers responded to more than 125 accidents during the rally and made 235 drunk-driving arrests. More than 1,200 traffic citations were handed out and 4,234 warnings were issued.

Traffic typically begins to pick up about 2 p.m. in the afternoon, peaking around 5 p.m. before slowing down at 7 p.m. when activity ramps up at the concert venues, Karley said.

The rally’s complexion has changed in recent years, according to Wilts, who has watched the event evolve since 1990.

“You have some of the wild times, but it’s as not prevalent,” Wilts said. “People are more responsible in their approach to having a good time. We have a handful coming for the party, but, generally, they’re not the majority.”

Contact Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or andrea.cook@rapidcityjournal.com

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