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Shooting prompts sorrow, reflection among sheriffs

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The shooting death of a Turner County deputy sheriff has saddened sheriffs and deputies across the area, leaving them to wonder what they can do to prevent a similar incident from happening here.

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"We lost one of our own, and that takes a toll on everybody," said Steve Brink, chief deputy of Davison County. "Obviously, it will put us on a higher alert."

The news of the death of Chad Mechels, 32, has reverberated through the law enforcement community in South Dakota. Responding to a welfare check Sunday on a Turner County farm, court documents say Mechels was shot at least twice by Ethan Johns, 19, of Marion. Mechels died later in a Sioux Falls hospital.

Brink said he'll wait until he has heard all of the facts on the incident before he meets with other law enforcement officers to discuss what, if anything, local officers can do to avoid a similar tragedy.

"Right now, we wouldn't have done anything much different than what the deputy did," said Brink. "When all the facts of the incident come out, we'll sit down, take a look and see if there's anything we need to change."

Brink said his department has done similar welfare checks "100 times" without incident, but the routine checks still send officers into "the unknown."

"There's never a safe call," Brink said. "Every call we go on, you keep yourself in alert condition."

In Hutchinson County, Sheriff Jim Zeeb said small staff numbers mean that waiting for backup is not always an option. While no policy changes have been made, Zeeb said the incident in Turner County has reminded his officers to be cautious in the field.

"We're definitely going to be a bit more wary," Zeeb said.

Tripp County Sheriff Chip Schroeder said the incident was a reminder that "rural South Dakota is not immune to violence."

"We're all in a rural area. It could have been any one of the agencies," Schroeder said. "We need to be more diligent in how we look at calls before we go out."

Lyle Swenson spent 42 years as a law enforcement officer, including many years as Davison County sheriff. Now retired from law enforcement, he said he considers himself "very, very lucky" to never have been shot at, although he admits to having a gun pointed at him many times.

Swenson believes an increase in alcohol and drug abuse is leading to more violence against law enforcement officers. Between chemical abuse, mental illness and simple human emotion, it's impossible for an officer to know what kind of a situation will present itself during a welfare check.

"You get called to these kinds of things day in and day out," Swenson said. "I may have been told it was a family fight or an argument of some sort, but I have no idea what's going through your head. If you think I'm coming to take you out, you start resorting to deadly force."

According to a document titled "Officer Down" obtained from the South Dakota Attorney General's Office, the last South Dakota law enforcement officer to die on duty was Sheriff John Bechtold Jr., who suffered a fatal heart attack after arriving on the scene of a fatal accident in Campbell County in 2004.

The last South Dakota law officer to be killed in the line of duty was Highway Patrol Trooper Oren Hindman, who was stabbed in 1985.

Mitchell's history shows one death of a law officer. John Tyler Pierce was killed April 9, 1884.

Swenson, the longtime president of the Mitchell Historical Society, said Pierce had returned to a local bar after warning the owner to close. The owner shot Pierce in the face with a shotgun, killing him.

The loss of an officer in the field is a reminder of the uncertain nature and overall danger of law enforcement, Swenson said.

"I think the unknown is what makes law enforcement's job so difficult," Swenson said.

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