A young Burner tries to stay awake for an early morning sculpture burn at the 2014 Burning Man. / Debra Reid photo
A young Burner tries to stay awake for an early morning sculpture burn at the 2014 Burning Man. / Debra Reid photo
Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen has publicly slammed big corporations before and last week added Black Rock City LLC, the organization behind Burning Man, to his list. He believes a 2013 agreement between BRC and the county improperly restricts his law enforcement authority at the massive festival.

“I’m concerned that we’re being bullied by Burning Man into being subservient to them and subservient to the BLM,” he said of the settlement agreement. “I’ve been assured by our legal counsel and (BRC’s) legal counsel that’s not what it is but the text of the settlement agreement would dictate otherwise.”

Allen said the agreement’s budget allowance for county law enforcement, based on peak population, means he will be shorthanded and law enforcement will be inadequate at the festival. He believes that he, rather than event organizers, should determine county law enforcement costs to be paid by BRC.

“It’s my belief that the whole settlement agreement is unconstitutional,” Allen said. “The county commissioners can’t sign an agreement that binds me to do anything. The only thing I’m subservient to the county commissioners for is budgetary constraints. Unfortunately, the budget we’re allowed to have (by the agreement) is going to be one of the limiting factors for this and every year’s event.”

Due to the county’s limited law enforcement personnel, Allen must recruit active-duty law enforcement officers from other county agencies to assist with this year’s Burning Man. Another agency has already turned down his request for help due to officer safety concerns, he said.

“I’ve had at least one county deny me patrolmen based on the fact that we will not have adequate personnel from the sheriff’s office out there and at this point we don’t know if we’ll have adequate medical coverage if an officer gets hurt,” Allen said.

Allen said he is particularly displeased with apparent restrictions in the 2013 settlement agreement on the county’s enforcement of certain state laws at Burning Man. A passage in the agreement appears to eliminate the county sheriff’s authority over alcohol use and the control of minors attending the event.

“County agrees that for the duration of this agreement, it shall not attempt to separately regulate any matters addressed by the BLM permit including without limitation the use of alcohol and presence of children at the event,” the agreement reads.

The agreement also limits the county’s law enforcement budget for Burning Man according to the event’s “peak population.” However, Allen said he and his deputies must deal with more than just the “burners” who purchase tickets, including thousands of BRC volunteers, contractors and children at the event. A worker charged with sexual assault at the 2014 event remains in custody at the county jail.

“The paid participants are the vast majority, but at a 70,000-person event, probably roughly 10,000 are not paid participants,” Allen said. “We are only budgeted according to what they say are paid participants. We don’t get any funding for those 20 percent extra people but we still deal with them. We still have a person in our jail on a charge of sexual assault who was a contractor at the event.”

BRC’s 2014 Site Occupancy Report lists daily numbers of paid participants plus daily totals of BRC staff, crew and workers at the event. The event peak totals were listed for Aug. 29, 2014, at 65,922 participants and 9,312 workers for a “total bodies on site” of 75,234 that day, according to BRC.

For a peak population of 70,000 to 79,000 at the event, the settlement agreement specifies a payment to the county of $275,000 for integrated law enforcement or $475,000 for separate law enforcement.

Allen is less than pleased with other parts of the settlement agreement, including BRC’s requirements for a press release from the sheriff within three days of the event and an After Action Report to BRC from the sheriff’s office within 14 days of the event. Burning Man is again being extended by two days in an attempt to reduce highway traffic before and after the event, but the settlement agreement describes the festival as an eight-day event. In addition, other assemblies on the playa sponsored by BRC during any two week period between June 1 and Labor Day are defined as Burning Man events.

Nudity is considered self-expression at the event, but Allen questioned why Burning Man participants should be exempted from state laws that are applied to all other visitors and residents of the county.

Allen said he won’t have enough deputies or jail cells to arrest and house thousands of violators but his deputies will respond to complaints of inappropriate behavior and/or obscenity involving minors.

“We will never have enough personnel to effectively police the nudity (at Burning Man),” he said. “However, taking a hands-off approach is not fair to the rest of the citizens of Pershing County. You can’t walk around nude anywhere else in this county without somebody contacting law enforcement. It’s not allowed here, it shouldn’t be allowed there. The rules are the same for everybody.”

Undersheriff Tom Bjerke pointed out that exposing children to nudity is strictly prohibited in Nevada and those who violate state laws will be prosecuted. BRC now promotes the festival as family friendly, although in previous years organizers had discouraged attendance by minors, Bjerke said.

“If Burning Man would make it an 18-years and over event, that would solve many issues out there,” Allen said. “So many law enforcement issues would go away. There would still be issues because their motto is ‘radical free expression’ and people interpret that to mean they can do whatever they want.”

In 2009, the FBI reported an average of 1.7 law enforcement officers per 1,000 residents patrol cities in the West. By that standard, Allen said he needs 136 deputies to adequately patrol a total of 80,000 or more participants, staff and contractors expected at Burning Man’s Black Rock City north of Gerlach.

Last year, the county sheriff had a staff of 24 deputies at the event, according to Allen.

“There’s enforcement issues and a huge limiting factor is the budget they (BRC) proposed with no justification for where that budget came from,” Allen said after last week’s meeting in Lovelock with BRC and the BLM. The next meeting between stakeholders was scheduled for this Tuesday in Reno.

Allen said partial law enforcement integration with the BLM is acceptable but only at his discretion on a case-by-case basis. If a major incident occurs, his deputies and the federal agents will back each other up but otherwise the two agencies have separate law enforcement objectives and procedures, he said.

“I’ve told BLM we will for the most part be partially integrated,” Allen said. “There are events out there that I can see partial integration would be a benefit but I can see other cases where being tied to the BLM would be a bad thing for the sheriff and the state. As the sheriff of Pershing County, I have to make sure I’m not setting bad precedents for the other sheriffs in the state.”

Allen said he would prefer no settlement agreement or cost negotiations with BRC regarding county law enforcement budgets and procedures. He cited a Washoe County law enforcement contract that dictates costs and policies at the event and believes that’s why Burning Man isn’t held in that county.

“Pershing County has set a terrible precedent for the state where Burning Man is concerned and it continues to get worse every year,” Allen said. “No other private entity that comes to the county gets to dictate terms on how county services will be provided or how money will change hands.”

By challenging BRC, Allen knows he’s up against powerful political clout and deep pockets. After previous settlement agreements with Pershing County were knocked down by former District Court Judge Richard Wagner in 2012, BRC sued the county then successfully lobbied state lawmakers for legislation (AB 374) giving county officials the option to exempt permitted public land events from county licensing fees and ordinances. Pershing County officials agreed to exempt Burning Man and the settlement agreement was signed in 2013, but BRC’s federal litigation against the county continues.

“Burning Man’s main hold over the county is they can out-money us in court.” Allen said. “The county festival ordinance was based on state law and when the county realized we have to abide by state law like any other county, Burning Man took exception to that and took us to federal court.”

Under the current settlement agreement with BRC, Allen said his law enforcement resources will be far below what he considers the minimum required to ensure public safety at the counterculture festival.

“I’m willing to make this statement on the record,” he said last week. “The way it stands now, I cannot adequately provide for the safety of participants at Burning Man because of the limitations of the settlement agreement, the limitations of our county’s resources and the fact that, at any given time, if we don’t abide by those terms, Burning Man is willing to take us back to federal court.”

Requests for comment from the BLM were not returned as of press time Wednesday morning.