During a recent traffic stop on U.S. Highway 16 west of Rapid
City, a mere five feet prevented deputy Doug Kimball from making
radio contact with Pennington County dispatch.
Lacking a cellphone or computer connection and that critical radio
link, the Pennington County Sheriff’s deputy gave the car’s driver
a verbal caution about his speed before allowing him to continue
down the road.
Without that vital radio connection, Kimball decided it was better
to allow the driver to continue.
Kimball was the only deputy on duty in the Hill City area. His
nearest back up was a deputy at Keystone, but at that moment,
Kimball had no way of contacting him.
“If something were to go wrong, it’s a bad situation to be in,”
Kimball explained. Had Kimball tried to enforce an active warrant
for the driver, or if the car was stolen, the situation could have
changed in an instant.
“I don’t want to get into a high speed pursuit with someone through
Hill City and I don’t want to be along the side of the road with
someone and no communication,” the deputy explained.
Only after putting his patrol vehicle in gear did Kimball discover
that moving ahead five feet re-connected him with dispatch.
Lack of communication is just one of the many issues law
enforcement officers serving in remote areas of western South
Dakota deal with every day.
Those officers must have the
ability to handle situations in rapidly changing environments. They
have to be able to multi-task while maintaining control of a
situation, Meade County chief deputy Tom Wilts said.
ability to handle situations in rapidly changing environments.
They have to be able to multi-task while maintaining control of a
situation, Meade County chief deputy Tom Wilts said.
His department wants people who have the ability to act
independently and make good decisions in high-stress
“They have to have the mental and physical presence to gain control
of the situation and not allow it to get any worse,” Wilts
“You basically have to be careful with the decisions you make,”
said Pennington County deputy Dallas Kendrick, while driving the
back roads of eastern Pennington County on a quiet Saturday
That particular night, the chatter between Pennington County
dispatchers and others disappeared as Kendrick drove his Chevrolet
Tahoe northeast of Wall to deliver civil documents.
“You’re kind of out there in the wind, things can happen in
seconds,” Kendrick explained. Even with radio contact, it could be
at least 30 minutes before someone could respond to a call for
assistance, he said.
“There is definitely that reality of receiving an emergency call
and having to respond to that knowing you are going to be the first
person on the scene to deal with whatever it is,” Pennington County
chief deputy Brian Mueller said.
Like Kimball, who is assigned to Hill City, Kendrick does not
start his shift in Rapid City. His duty assignment is in Wall, one
of the four communities Pennington County partners with to provide
Through those contracts, deputies are based in Hill City, Wall,
Keystone and New Underwood. Each community contracts with the
county for a certain number of hours of law enforcement.
Hill City paid $100,762 this year for law enforcement services that
Mayor Dave Gray said is a “heck of a deal.”
Wall’s Mayor Dave Hahn estimates the town’s $98,158 contract with
the county saves the community at least $20,000 annually.
“In my mind, there’s no question it’s the best way to go,” Hahn
Along with Keystone’s contract for $58,163 and New Underwood’s
$37,489 contract, the contracts help support the county’s
$8,032,671 law enforcement budget.
At full strength, Pennington County has 70 sworn officers on its
roster with an authorized patrol strength of 36 deputies, including
supervisors. In addition, the county has four civil deputies and 26
The contracts are mutually beneficial and provide for an efficient
delivery of services, according to Pennington County Sheriff Kevin
“It gives taxpayers the biggest bang for their buck and it allows
us to provide consistent 24-hour coverage more efficiently than if
they were trying to do it themselves,” Thom said. “It’s an
excellent partnership, it works well for everybody.”
Stationing deputies who live either in or near the outlying
communities improves emergency response time, Mueller said.
“A unique aspect of our county is that it is approximately 110
miles long,” Mueller said. Rapid City is the hub for law
enforcement for the county’s 100,000 citizens. From that central
location it’s 40-50 miles to either end of the county.
“Even though we don’t have deputies in every corner of the county
24 hours a day, it gives us a response element on both ends of our
county at any given time,” Mueller said.
That doesn’t mean, however, that a deputy who starts his or her
shift in Rapid City won’t end the day working a call out in the
county, Pennington County patrol Captain Corey Brubakken
Pennington County recently re-examined its calls for service to
determine what parts of the day are the busiest, Brubakken
“We redistributed our shifts to balance man power with officer
safety,” Brubakken said. The county has an established minimum
number of deputies per shift that it will not go below, he
Everyone shares the burden of shift work by working a rotation on
Meade County’s 17 sworn deputies and two civil deputies cover a
county that is almost 4,000 square miles in size with approximately
28,000 residents. It’s the largest county in South Dakota. The
civil deputies do not have law enforcement training. Using them to
serve civil papers frees deputies to focus on calls for
“We have diversity,” Wilts said. The county’s sparsely populated
rural areas demand the least attention.
“Our calls for service are the lowest in the rural areas,” Wilts
said. The densely populated strip from Sturgis to Rapid City and
areas bordering Ellsworth Air Force Base require the most
Wilts said Meade County has to prioritize how it uses its manpower
resources. Deputies don’t spend as much time patrolling in rural
areas as they do in residential areas. Wilts said deputies are,
however, always alert for other problems when responding to
Deputies are trained to deal with multiple subjects alone. They
also train to stay calm while reasoning with people to avoid having
a situation escalate into a physical confrontation.
South Dakota Highway Patrol Captain Kevin Karley’s first duty
station was at Platte, where he was frequently the only law
enforcement officer working after 5 p.m.
“You learn to develop your interpersonal skills and to interpret
people’s responses,” Karley said.
Training in procedures is essential to keeping officers working
alone safe, Karley said.
Repetitious training on procedures is key to making the elements of
a safe stop — where to park, setting lights, checking video
cameras, radios and contacting dispatch — second nature, he
“We want them to not think about those tedious tasks — just do
them,” Karley said.
Until additional support arrives, however, controlling the
situation is up to the officer working alone.
“One thing, too, that we have seen in the Midwest, and not just
here in Meade County, but there are citizens who are still willing
to get in and help an officer if he or she is in trouble,” Wilts
New trainees go through a period of field training with another
officer to help them understand procedures and how to deal with the
remote nature of their duties.
Across the United States, assaults on law enforcement officers
have increased this year, Wilts said.
“Nationwide, we went past last year’s assaults on officers sometime
in May or June,” Wilts said. “It’s on a record pace.”
Because of that increasing trend toward violence, and the distance
caused delays in getting a backup officer to a scene, Meade County
requires officers to wait, if possible, for back up when responding
to some calls, particularly domestic violence situations.
“Officer safety is paramount when they’re responding to these
calls,” Wilts said.
Dispatchers are trained to gather as much information as possible
for officers from the reporting party who calls for assistance.
That helps the deputies prepare mentally to handle the calls, Wilts
All those questions from a dispatcher can be frustrating to people
calling for help, but they are vital to help deputies know what
type of situation they are walking into, he said.
It’s also important to hire men and women capable of developing the
right skills to deal with the unexpected.
“We’re generally two to three (deputies) short,” Mueller said.
Attrition and the general nature of law enforcement contribute to
the shortage. Not every person is suitable for law enforcement or
many young officers move on to other jobs.
Retention is a constant concern for law enforcement agencies across
the country, Mueller said.
“That’s an issue that plagues law enforcement agencies all
throughout the country. How to attract the right people and retain
those employees is always a challenge,” he said, although
Pennington County does a good job of keeping people. “Our turnover
in law enforcement and corrections is lower than the national
Pennington County’s annual starting salary for deputies goes from
$39,284 to $40,000 in January. Brubakken estimates it costs the
county an estimated $30,000 to train and equip a new deputy. That
includes eight months of salary during the training period.
Jackson County Sheriff Ray Clements, Jr., recently lost his only
deputy, when Tim Nuttle accepted a position with Pennington
Clements said replacing Nuttle will likely take some time. It’s
difficult to attract applicants willing to live and work in a small
community, he said.
“It’s hard, especially with a single person,” Clements said.
Kadoka, the Jackson County seat, is 90 miles from Rapid City and
the kind of activity that appeals to young people, he said.
Jackson County’s starting salary for a deputy is reasonably
competitive at approximately $30,000 a year, the sheriff said. But,
it’s not enough to support a family.
“Obviously, you have to be a two income family to make it work and
there are not a lot of jobs here for a wife,” Clements said.
“But, it’s not an 8-5 job. You could work 10-12 hours on a shift
and not get paid overtime,” Clements said.
In the first week the vacancy was advertised only one of four
applicants was even a possible candidate, he said.
South Dakota requires state certification of all law enforcement
officers. Officers must be certified within their first year of
employment. The state does have reciprocity agreements with some
states to accept their officer certification.
Clements said it’s not uncommon for young officers to start their
law enforcement career in a smaller jurisdiction where they can
complete the 13-week training program and gain some experience
before moving on to a larger jurisdiction.
“A small county runs the risk of being the training county,” he
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