Minnesota State Fair disbands its police as reopening approaches

Crowds pack the streets and the sky ride on the first day of the Fair.
Crowds pack the streets and the sky ride on the first day of the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn. on Thursday, August 23, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Minnesota State Fair officials are looking for a new police force, after fair officials decided to eliminate the department following the departure of the current police chief.

A statement released by fair general manager Jerry Hammer said chief Paul Paulos, a longtime St. Paul police officer, announced his retirement earlier this month after serving since 2018. His predecessor, Art Blakey, had served for nearly 40 years.

Evolving “technology, training, equipment and standards” that included safety and security, call for new approaches, Hammer said.

“We’ve determined that the most effective and efficient way to provide the best possible public safety is to partner with an outside agency. We’re currently in discussions with Minnesota law enforcement agencies to provide the best and safest environment for all at the State Fairgrounds.”

The fair’s police department had more than 50 employees as recently as 2018, although not all were sworn officers. The fair typically ramps up for the Great Minnesota Get Together by bringing in scores of uniformed officers from agencies around the state on a contract basis.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said in an interview with MPR News that he is in talks with the State Fair to organize police services. His department already has the contract to police Falcon Heights, where the Fairgrounds are located.

“We haven’t worked that out,” Fletcher said in an interview. “We’ve made no commitments.” 

He said he considered policing the fair to be a state responsibility, and that he’s asked for troopers or conservation officers to assist with the effort. It isn’t clear if the sheriff’s office would sign a contract with the fair, enter a joint powers agreement or strike a fee-for-service deal — or be in charge at all.

Department of Public Safety officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Fletcher says the fair will need an estimated 200 officers to serve during the 12-day run, at a cost approaching $2 million. He says that’s well above the previous complement, but he thinks security will warrant the extra officers.

“We're trying to build this team that could provide a safe and secure environment,” Fletcher said. “We're not going to commit unless we know we can get the job done right. And it's critical that the job be done right, because there's 2 million people that come to this fair... It's just too important not to have the right level of safety there.”

Fletcher said assembling enough officers is daunting for a variety of reasons: Minneapolis police ranks have thinned by nearly a third, and St. Paul’s force has also shrunk, leaving fewer officers to potentially recruit. Fletcher also said a spike in gun violence is taxing existing police.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.