“I had always wanted to work a big event. It was on my bucket list of things I want to do before I die,” said Hillsboro Police Officer Tim Sheldon. “I knew that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally always took special police, so when I came across the event online, and noticed they were accepting officers, I decided to apply.”
Officer Sheldon submitted his online application but whether or not the annual motorcycle rally would take place amid a pandemic was anyone’s guess. The city of Sturgis decided to hold the large scale event, however it was the Old Settlers Association’s decision to cancel this year’s Old Settlers Days celebrations that cemented the opportunity for Sheldon, enabling him to take time off from the Hillsboro Police Department to work the ten-day rally in South Dakota. During a normal year, Sheldon would have been needed at home to help police the Old Settlers Days festivities.
This marked the 80th year for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which draws bikers from across the country and hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists annually. An estimated 460,000 guests and around 784 temporary vendors participated in the rally this year, which ran from Friday, Aug. 7, to Sunday, Aug. 16, in Sturgis, SD.
While Sheldon has prior experience working county fairs and festivals locally during his 24 year career as a police officer (21 years served with the Hillsboro Police Department) it was the first time he had worked an event as large as Sturgis.
“It was the first time I had even been to a motorcycle rally, as well as the first time I had policed an event that large, so there were no expectations in my mind,” Sheldon explained. “I was just going to have fun, and enjoy the scenery, the people and the aspects of the rally.”
One of the larger aspects that drew Sheldon to accept the ten-day job was the opportunity for camaraderie with fellow law enforcement officers from across the country.
“I really enjoyed being able to work alongside and network with so many officers from so many different places,” said Sheldon. “I think there were officers from ten different states covering the event. For security reasons, they wouldn’t give me an official total of how many police officers they brought in.”
Sheldon was also impressed with the number of veteran officers at the event, officers who had numerous years experience working the Sturgis Rally.
One had worked the rally for 43 years. He also said there was a bit of an adjustment to working law enforcement in another state and that the officers covering the event had to be briefed on the different codes (laws).
The officers working the event were placed into teams of four with a team leader who had several years experience working the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
“We were always in partners of two. On my team we had two experienced officers. One team leader had been working the event for about ten years and the other around three years. Myself and the other guy were the brand new guys,” said Sheldon.“They stressed to wear very comfortable shoes because we were on our feet for 12 hours.”
Sheldon was assigned foot patrol in downtown Sturgis. He began his 12 hour shifts at 2 p.m. and ended at 2 a.m. Following their shifts the out-of-town officers were given rooms at the Veterans Administration Barracks.The long shifts and early morning hours did not stop Sheldon from taking the opportunity to ride his own bike, a Harley Davidson, to explore South Dakota. Attractions within an easy riding distance of Sturgis include Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, Devils Tower National Monument and Badlands National Park.
“I would get back to the barracks and take naps. Then I would try to get up and ride before my shifts started in the afternoon. There were multiple rides around the city of Sturgis and they had different canyon runs,” said Sheldon. “I managed to get in around 600 miles on my motorcycle trying to check out everything I could. I also got to ride my motorcycle to work every day and it was kind of cool to be able to do that.”
Sheldon was not the only officer with an interest in bikes. He stated that a majority of the officers working the event also rode motorcycles and that they enjoyed checking out the bikes while performing security detail.
“It was a sensory overload. I have never seen that many bikes in one place and I have never been around that many self-proclaimed ‘outlaw’ bikers. Even though I ride a Harley, I have never had much exposure to that culture. It was a great experience to be immersed in a culture that is different from my own,and to do so in a capacity where I was able help everyone and allow them to have a good time.”
The attendees’ appreciation and support for law enforcement was a highlight of many of the officers who worked the event.
“It was impressive how many people came up to us, thanked us, gave us high-fives and wanted their photos taken with us. We went through a lot of hand sanitizer,” said Sheldon with a laugh.
For the most part the crowd was positive, however the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was not without incident.
“On the last day of the rally we had an incident involving a group of protestors,” said Sheldon. “I was a block-and-a-half away when things went down. Officers were protecting a group of people that were using their right to speak their viewpoint. I am not sure why this happened, but one of the protestors kicked a motorcycle. I’m sure you can imagine the reaction. It spurred on all the bikers to get really angry. The officers immediately began trying to de-escalate the situation. The first imperative was to calm the bikers down and convince them to let us handle the situation. By the time I got there, the officers on site were already shuttling people away. The man who kicked the bike ended up getting arrested and several officers escorted the group of protestors out of the city, at their request, for their own protection. Once we returned to our posts, everyone was really appreciative of our services.”
According to a post on the Sturgis Police Department’s Facebook page, a group of local demonstrators from Rapid City gathered in protest of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Days of 76 Rodeo and Pennington County Central States Fair - all large events being held in the area. The department had prior knowledge of the demonstrations and allowed them to gather in a designated area. After approximately 45 minutes, one demonstrator, Drew Wishon, a 23 year old from Rapid City, kicked a motorcyclist as he was passing by. Wishon was placed under arrest for disorderly conduct and he was removed from the scene.
While the officers were able to intervene and de-escalate what could have easily turned into mob violence, it was fate that saved the day when a drunk driver drove through the rally.
“We had some major calls. We had a drunk driver that drove right up town through the motorcycles,” Sheldon explained. “They were able to get him in custody. I can’t imagine if someone had lost their life because of it, fortunately that didn’t happen.”
Sheldon went on to give credit to Sturgis Chief or Police, Geody Vandewater, stating that the event ran smoothly and the officers were able to ensure everyone had a great time because of the chief’s diligence and organization of the event. The City of Sturgis has been involved in hosting the rally for so long that they created a city department in 2002 dedicated to organizing the lucrative, large-scale event.
“It was a great experience but I don’t know if I will cover another big event. I have always wanted to do one of the Olympics, whether it be the winter or summer olympics, but with nine years left to retire I am not sure that is going to happen,” said Sheldon. “Working the Sturgis Rally was one of those deals where I wanted to do it now, while my body still can handle it. I am not saying I’m getting old, but the older you get your body breaks down and you can’t quite do everything that you want. I am grateful that I was able to experience working an event as big as the Sturgis Rally and that there is now one less item on my bucket list.”