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From Sturgis to Leith, a small step for sheriff

ELGIN, N.D. (AP) -- When white supremacists and anti-hate protesters converged on tiny Leith, Grant County Sheriff Steve Bay handled a potentially explosive crowd with a calm, even hand.

Grant County, N.D. Sheriff Steve Bay
In this Oct. 9, 2013 file photo, Grant County, N.D. Sheriff Steve Bay poses for a photo in Elgin, N.D. (AP Photo/The Bismarck Tribune, Lauren Donovan)

ELGIN, N.D. (AP) -- When white supremacists and anti-hate protesters converged on tiny Leith, Grant County Sheriff Steve Bay handled a potentially explosive crowd with a calm, even hand.

It was his turf, his operation and he was the man in charge of security, using his department, other area departments, and a riot-control team from the state Highway Patrol.

He had a plan for barricades, crowd and traffic control and for weapons. A plan based on his experiences in Sturgis, S.D.

When 350 people descended on Leith on Sept. 22, some of them to protest the planned takeover of the town by neo-Nazis settlers and some of them members of white supremacist groups, he was more than ready.

In fact, he said, it was the biggest event of his career as sheriff, mainly for the amount of time spent in pre-operational planning and coordination.

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The situation was tense, passions ran high on both sides and for a long warm afternoon in Leith, it felt like a keg of dynamite just shy of a match.

However, the protest and rally ended quietly and peaceably enough and, at least for the moment, everyone went back to their respective corners.

Bay, 61, fit, tattooed and focused, shrugged off 'atta' boys' for his handling of the day's event.

"Once you've done security in Sturgis, you've pretty much seen it all," he told The Bismarck Tribune as he watched the last of the stragglers get into their cars and leave town.

Bay has been sheriff of Grant County since 1988 and for the past 15 summers, he's spent nearly two weeks in August on foot patrol in the downtown heart of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

"Seen it all" doesn't begin to cover the experience of dealing with a crowd that swells to more than a half-million people on motorcycles, partying up a storm and cutting loose in an atmosphere greased with alcohol and painted and pastied nudity.

Like Dorothy in Oz, he's not in Grant County anymore.

He's witnessed death by motorcycle wreck, death by knifings and injury by gunshot wound. He's gotten into a few scuffles, though just the red dot of a Taser has pretty much ended most physical altercations, he said.

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He's witnessed a lot of people having too much fun and has learned that his own common sense and a fair amount of discretion go a long way.

Other than for those bent on hard-core trouble, most just need to be told the rules.

"You can't drink on the streets and women can't lift their shirts," he said. "You can tell if they just got caught up in the moment."

People who are pulled aside get a record check and more trouble if there's an outstanding warrant.

"We do a lot of warnings, a 'Get on out of here,'" he said. "But trust me, a lot of arrests are made."

With his team he walks the streets from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., sometimes in extreme heat, decked in a full gear belt that weighs 20 pounds and a Kevlar vest.

He starts working out ahead of time to get in shape for the 15 or so miles he'll walk every day and tells the newbie patrol officers to do themselves a big favor and take good care of their feet -- they're going to need them.

A lesson from Sturgis that he applied to Leith was to immediately take troublemakers out of the crowd to send a message to everyone.

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He put the word out that no violence would be tolerated and because the event in Leith was a political protest, no weapons would be allowed. One knife was confiscated and returned.

"I felt really good about it. It was not overkill and we didn't want to overdo a show of force, but we wanted to stay one step ahead of things," he said.

One who's not at all surprised with the equanimity and professionalism Bay displayed in Leith is Sturgis Police Chief Jim Bush.

Bush welcomes Bay back summer after summer and promoted him to lead one of the foot patrol teams as a sworn-in officer.

"He's been a really good hand for us. The main thing is he's a people person; it's all about how you handle the situation, it doesn't always have to be an arrest," Bush said.

In fact, in the 2013 rally only 500 arrests or "contacts" were made by police and 300 of those were for parking violations, Bush said.

Bush said people come to the rally from all over the world and while ignorance isn't a defense, they're used to different rules and laws.

"They (officers) have to be patient and get all the facts and he does well at that, that's why he's a team leader," Bush said. "People make mistakes, but they don't always need to burn in hell for them."

Bay is a Grant County native, husband, dad and granddad, living on the homestead farm of his boyhood. He served with the Mercer County Sheriff's Department during the days of the Indian Head Mine strikes and the coal construction boom, when friends became enemies overnight, cars got tipped over and fires were started up.

"I tamed Zap, I'll take credit for that," he said.

He's got another year left as Grant County sheriff and is exploring his future options. The phone's already ringing with other offers, but he hasn't decided whether to run for office or move on.

He does know he plans at least two more tours in Sturgis.

"I love it. It's the friendships and the adrenaline. It's a different way of law enforcement than Grant County. Here I know which people I need to watch, there you watch everybody. That's the way it is," he said.

Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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