Minnehaha County sheriff looks back at Sioux Falls riots

Local News

SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — The Minnehaha County Sheriff sees troubling parallels between this week’s violent demonstration at the U.S. Capitol and riots in Sioux Falls he witnessed during his law enforcement career. Mike Milstead was with the Sioux Falls Police Department when riots broke out at the Minnehaha County Courthouse in 1974 and at the John Morrell plant in 1987.

The broken windows at the U.S. Capitol eerily echo back to the smashed courthouse windows in Sioux Falls decades earlier and shattered car windows at the John Morrell plant.

“People, if they say you don’t get scared, they’re not telling you the truth. It’s a scary time,” Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead said.

Mike Milstead was a young police cadet, assigned to watch the riot unfolding at the Minnehaha County Courthouse in 1974 from atop the nearby Sioux Falls City Hall.

“A lot of destruction going down there, several officers injured, other people injured and hospitalized. A couple people died in a car crash as state troopers were responding to assist,” Milstead said.

Protesters, demanding justice, rioted as Native American defendants stood trial on charges from an earlier riot at the Custer County Courthouse.

“It caused people some concern about relationships with our Native American residents because it wasn’t even about Sioux Falls and I think things were being done in our community to try to build better relationships,” Milstead said.

Milstead still has one of the clubs used by the rioters: a leg from a Red Cross cot.

“It brings back memories of seeing my fellow officers in skirmishes with weapons and clubs, windows breaking out, a melee,” Milstead said.

More than a decade later, Milstead was once again on the front lines of a riot. Striking John Morrell workers pelted the cars of replacement workers with rocks and bricks. Milstead was part of a group of officers, wearing helmets and gas masks, responding to trouble spots in a police vehicle nicknamed the “rock car,” because it too was targeted by the striking workers.

“I could sure feel my heart pounding and all I could think about, I’m going to guess some of those people might have been my friends and they’re people I grew up with,” Milstead said.

Milstead says this week’s riot at the Capitol shows how deeply divided we are as a nation. But Milstead says, those divisions, whether political, racial, or economic, have always existed, and law enforcement officers, tasked with restoring order and keeping the community safe, are the ones caught in the middle.

“I hope for unity, but I don’t see a lot of it right now,” Milstead said.

Milstead says the Capitol riot also shows how quickly a protest can escalate into violence when there’s not enough security in place. He credits South Dakota law enforcement agencies with having the ability to quickly provide backup when communities face emergencies of their own.

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