Crisis in the making

Ron Burtz
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it!” 
That’s the assessment of Custer County Sheriff Marty Mechaley of the current anti-law enforcement climate in America. Having started in law enforcement at the age of 21, the now 49-year-old knows whereof he speaks. 
“I never would have dreamed in my whole law enforcement career that it would get to the point that it is today,” said Mechaley. 
Mechaley said on Monday the riots and unrest on the national scene in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis several weeks ago have contributed to a growing toxic atmosphere for law enforcement officers across the country. Videos of Floyd’s arrest by Minneapolis police show a white officer with his knee on the neck of the black man as he lay on the ground in handcuffs. Floyd’s death sparked a wave of violent protests in that city which spread across the nation in the ensuing days. 
“I think what happened in Minnesota never should have happened,” said Mechaley. “All of law enforcement in the nation agrees on that. There’s no disputing that, but I don’t think because of a couple of bad actors that you have to come after everybody in law enforcement.”
Mechaley admits there has always been some anti-law enforcement negativity based on a few officers who abuse their authority, but he said animosity toward cops is growing.    
“I’ve never experienced in my entire career what we have today,” he said.
As evidence of this growing trend, Mechaley pointed to two body cam videos of incidents in recent days which illustrate the kind of verbal and even physical abuse his deputies are subjected to on a regular basis.
A May 23 incident involving deputies Matt Warren and Seth Thompson depicted their encounter with a local man who was intoxicated and refused to leave a residence where he was unwanted. The deputies had secured a sober driver to take the man home, but he refused to leave and became violent. 
The second video showed deputies Matt Tramp and Carl Maude dealing with two out-of-state women whose car had gone off the road outside of town June 14. The women, who were employed locally, were both intoxicated and became abusive when the deputies attempted to arrest the driver for driving under the influence. 
In the profanity-laced videos, the officers faced both verbal and physical aggression from the subjects. They are threatened, called names and even kicked. In addition, all the subjects attempted to make it appear the officers were using excessive force or abusing them in some way.
“They’re gonna kill us,” one woman shouted to her partner over and over as deputies attempted to put her in the back seat of the patrol vehicle. 
The man involved in the domestic incident dared the officers to use a taser on him, punched the windshield of a car and injured his hand. At one point he appeared to throw himself on the ground in an attempt to make it appear the officer was assaulting him. 
Over the course of the interactions, which each lasted at least 20 minutes, the officers remained calm and professional and did not respond to the verbal and physical abuse in kind. 
“We are very professional and try to treat people with respect,” said Mechaley. “We don’t always get that in return, though. I see us dealing with a lot more of this.”
At the same time, Mechaley said he feels blessed to be serving where he is because the community and local officials have been extremely supportive of his office.
He said members of the public have been regularly dropping off gift cards, flowers and other gifts for his officers in recent days. 
“I get phone calls every week from people letting us know they respect and support us,” said the sheriff.
The Custer County Commission recently gave all the deputies a raise. 
Mechaley said he feels sorry for law enforcement officials in places like Minneapolis where the city council recently indicated a plan to defund the police. 
“I could not imagine working someplace where you don’t have that support,” said Mechaley, “and that’s why I think you’re going to see a mass exodus from law enforcement careers in some of the larger cities. I think that’s a bad mistake.
“I’ve always called it the fatal five because most cops quit within the first five years,” he said, “and that was before all of this. I think it’s going to be worse than that.”
Coming on the heels of the coronavirus lockdowns, which already caused people to have “a short fuse,” Mechaley said the timing of the most recent unrest could not have been worse and he reiterated his prediction that his office will have to deal with the effects of both situations for some time to come. 
“If this continues much longer, it’s gonna be difficult, not just on law enforcement,” he said. 
He said medical workers, EMTs, firefighters, dispatchers and search and rescue volunteers are all feeling the strain. 
“It’s gonna be hard on first responders for a while,” he said.

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