Weather Forecast


1980s crime: From 8-tracks to stun guns

Davison County Deputy Doug Kirkus, right, writes down a few final remarks after a fatal accident between a school bus and motorcycle. The 29-year-old motorcycle driver was killed Aug. 31, 1983, after colliding with the side of an Ethan school bus on Highway 37 south of Mitchell. (Daily Republic file photo)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third story in a series about the 1980s in the Mitchell area and the decade's impact on modern life. Further stories will be published periodically in future editions. 

0 Talk about it

When Gary Kingsbury knocked on the door in the 1980s, it usually meant the party was over.

"The kids were always running, trying to get away," he said.

Kingsbury, 63, spent more than three decades as a police officer with the Mitchell Police Division before retiring in March. In that time, Kingsbury witnessed changes to nearly every aspect of the job, from the equipment and training to the way crimes are fought.

Kingsbury joined the force as an unpaid, volunteer officer in 1980. In 1983, he went full-time.

The city's police were headquartered in the rear of the building that now serves as Mitchell's City Hall, at 612 N. Main St., attached to the Corn Palace. The city's Public Safety Department moved to its current building at 201 W. First Ave. in 1999.

"There would be nights where we were working with only two officers out there," Kingsbury said. "Sometimes, it didn't feel like it was enough."

Today, the city employs 27 full-time officers, with between three and five working on a typical night, according to Mitchell Public Safety Chief Lyndon Overweg.

With fewer officers to handle calls for assistance from across the city in the 1980s, Kingsbury said, officers were more likely to give warnings for minor offenses than officers working today. If all it took was an officer's appearance to break up an unruly party, so be it, Kingsbury said.

"If you were shorthanded, you just tried to get it taken care of so you could get on the next call," he said.

Prisons swell since '80s

Mark Meierhenry, a Sioux Falls attorney who served as the state's attorney general from 1979 to 1986, believes offenders are treated more harshly today because of changes and additions to the state's laws since the 1980s.

"What we're doing is spending a lot more money and giving a lot more attention to individual victims and their desires for retribution and punishment," he said. "I'm not demeaning the damage to the victims, but I am saying it has been an institutional change."

According to annual reports by the South Dakota Attorney General's Office, statewide statistical trends for major crimes have been varied since the 1980s.

There were 1,263 aggravated assaults reported in 2012, the reports say, which is more than 2.5 times the number in 1982. The number of rapes reported in 2012 was 464, nearly six times the 72 in 1982.

Other crimes have increased, too, but only slightly. The number of motor vehicle thefts reported, for example, was 818 in 1982 and 908 in 2012, an 11 percent increase. The number of robberies increased 20 percent, with 114 in 1982 and 142 in 2012.

The number of burglaries reported statewide has decreased from 3,885 in 1982 to 2,835 in 2012, a 27 percent drop. The number of thefts is relatively unchanged, with 12,889 reported in 1982 and 12,588 in 2012.

Between 1982 and 2012, there were, on average, 14 cases reported statewide of murder or non-negligent manslaughter each year. In that time, the highest yearly total was 28 in 1986 and the lowest was five in 1992.

Perhaps the most drastic statistical change in the field of criminal justice since the 1980s has been the state's number of inmates.

In 1980, 609 people were incarcerated in South Dakota's prisons, according to a recent study by The Sentencing Project. That number more than doubled by 1990, when 1,341 people were imprisoned in the state. In 2011, 3,530 people were locked up in the state's prisons -- nearly six times the number in 1980.

The upward trend in South Dakota's prison population since 1980 mirrors a national trend. There were 315,974 people imprisoned in the U.S. in 1980, and 739,549 people imprisoned in 1990, the report says. In 2011, there were 1.53 million people incarcerated nationwide.

Though Meierhenry said he has been astounded by the harshness of South Dakota's more recent legislatures, he also said Senate Bill 70 — legislation last year that made sweeping reforms to the state's criminal justice system — was a step in the right direction.

During Meierhenry's time as attorney general, many of the state's legislators were veterans of World War II or the Korean War.

"They had seen violence. They had seen the world," he said. "They were much more understanding and broad-thinking in how to shape a society."

Cop tech: Pay phones, 8-tracks

On snowy days in the 1980s, Kingsbury would sometimes fire up an old U.S. Army pickup truck and patrol the streets of Mitchell.

"Two of us would go out and patrol in that," he said. "The top speed was about 45 mph."

The type of equipment available to officers, and the quality of that equipment, has changed drastically since the 1980s.

"When I started, we were carrying revolvers," Kingsbury said. "You were basically issued 18 rounds."

In the 1980s, simply communicating with other officers could often be a challenge. There was a time in the 1980s, Kingsbury said, when the entire Mitchell Police Division had only six portable radios.

"If you had to call into the station, you had to find a payphone and dial 911," he said.

Today, each of the Mitchell Police Division's full-time officers is issued a portable radio.

Two manual typewriters — one to log incoming calls and one to log radio traffic — were used by the Mitchell Police Division's dispatchers. The first electric typewriter used by the dispatchers, Kingsbury said, met an early demise.

"Within a month, it burned up because it was left on all the time," Kingsbury said.

In 1980, dispatchers in Mitchell worked with authorities in the city and Davison County. If there were staffing shortages, officers were sometimes asked to act as dispatchers, Kingsbury said.

Today, there are 10 full-time dispatchers in Mitchell, working with authorities in the city, as well as on behalf of Davison, Hutchinson, Aurora, Brule, Hanson and McCook counties, and part of Lyman County.

Any time new equipment came out in the 1980s, Kingsbury said officers always took notice — though sometimes the equipment didn't always work out as expected. The first dashboard camera installed in a patrol car, for example, ran using an eight-track tape in the car's trunk.

"In the winter, it wouldn't work because it was so cold," he said.

Today, almost all traffic stops are recorded by officers in Mitchell, Overweg said.

"It makes for a more professional officer, I think," Overweg said. "Not to say they weren't before, but it just gives credibility to the officer."

Demands on officers change

With the advent of dashboard cameras and other potential recording devices, such as cell phones, officers are being monitored more today than ever before, Kingsbury said.

"Officers have to present themselves more professionally," he said.

The pressures on law enforcement have changed since the 1980s, according to Meierhenry.

"Society now demands zero risk," he said. "Officers are better trained and higher paid, but it sure appears they don't exercise as much discretion."

But technology has also aided officers by making their job safer, at least in some respects. Stun guns, for example, have given officers an alternative when dealing with potentially dangerous suspects.

"Before, it was always hands-on trying to control somebody," Kingsbury said. "Now they've got the option of using a stun gun."

From day to day, though, Kingsbury said, many of the challenges officers face are the same as those faced by officers in the 1980s.

"You still have to deal with the public, and the public can either be for you or against you," he said. "You still have got that today."