Minnesota State Fair reestablishing own police department a year after disbanding one

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Dec. 7—The Minnesota State Fair is reestablishing its own police department, a year after disbanding one and then turning to the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office for law enforcement at the Fairgrounds.

Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer in a Monday statement announced the Fair's decision, which follows seven months of the sheriff's office providing security at the Fairgrounds in Falcon Heights and also leading a multi-agency effort during the Fair. The State Fair's agreement with the sheriff's office ends Dec. 31.

According to the statement, the Fair's police department will continue its partnerships with the sheriff's office and Minnesota State Patrol, along with officers from other law enforcement agencies and medical services providers, plus additional security contractors. Ramsey County sheriff Cmdr. Ron Knafla will serve as the Fair's police chief.

The statement did not address why the Fair is going back to its own police force, nor did it give additional details such as when that process will begin and its projected size. Hammer was unavailable Monday for further comment, according to the statement.

Security at the Fairgrounds became an issue when the Fair this past spring decided to disband its decades-long police department and instead turn to an outside agency to provide security. In January, the Fair chose not to rehire the department's roughly 35 officers who were working on annual contracts either full- or part-time.

The decision not to renew the contracts was made because "we were reorganizing and adding more training, which was stopped because of the pandemic," Hammer said in June.

In May the Fair's Chief of Police Paul Paulos announced his retirement, which was effective May 31, and the Fair officially dissolved the police department.

But that meant Fair officials had to scramble to find security at the Fairgrounds before, during and after the 12-day event.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety recommended that the sheriff's office take the lead role during the Fair, prompting Sheriff Bob Fletcher and Fair officials to work on a plan. The sheriff's office on June 1 began providing one deputy at the Fairgrounds for pre-Fair security.

But the Ramsey County Board had reservations with the sheriff's office taking the lead during the Fair, with liability being chief among them. In late July, the county board signed off two contracts, one that covered the event and another for non-Fair dates through 2021. The board's decision came after reassurances from Fair officials that it had intended to purchase $10 million in police professional liability insurance and that the policy would include the county.

The county board had planned a Nov. 2 workshop on the Fair, including financials and steps beyond this year, but it was canceled after Fletcher told Board Chair Toni Carter that he would not be attending, according to a county spokesperson. That prompted Carter to send a Nov. 4 letter to Gov. Tim Walz informing him of "the unwillingness of Sheriff Fletcher to personally engage with the County Board" and suggesting that the Minnesota Agricultural Society Board, which governs the Fair and maintains the state-owned, 322-acre Fairgrounds, "will need to pursue alternative security arrangements for 2022."

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