Last nights at the State Fair: A gun, police fears, and hints of shortened hours

By Mike Kaszuba

On the last night of the 2021 Minnesota State Fair, police rushed to the front gates as the 12-day annual event known as the “Great Minnesota Get-Together” wound to a close.

At least 11 police officers confronted a crowd of 50 people trying to force their way into the fairgrounds as the fair closed at 8 p.m. One person in the crowd was spotted with a handgun, and was wrestled to the ground. According to a police report, State Fair staff trying to close the gates “became overwhelmed by the crowd” and police had to use spray with chemical agents so staff members would not be “trampled.” The report also detailed how police worried that the crowd surge would include people with weapons trying to get around the State Fair’s metal detectors.

“Being aware many identified gang members had already entered the grounds, I was concerned for the safety” of staff members at the gates, one Ramey County Sheriff’s Office official wrote.

New documents obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a non-profit based in Saint Paul, show that police expected trouble on the last night as they attempted to close the State Fair an hour earlier than usual. The documents also provide more details on the latest round of violence at what has long been Minnesota’s signature summer family event.

And, in a new interview with PRM, the State Fair’s 25-year general manager said the fair may reduce its hours further in coming years – partially to address shifting needs, but also to contend with incidents of violence.

“At this point, we haven’t made any firm decisions yet regarding operating hours,” Jerry Hammer, the State Fair’s longtime general manager, told PRM early in December. “They may be shortened every day of the fair because, again, between 9 and 10 (p.m.), how many tickets are we selling, anyway?

“I know one thing that we’ll discuss for sure is [our hours] not just [on] Labor Day, but every day,” he added.

Hammer said the violence on the last nights of the State Fair have factored into a reconsideration of how late the fair should stay open each night. “I’d say a little bit, [yes],” he said.

He added that the State Fair almost doubled its public safety expenses this year – adding metal detectors, security cameras and law enforcement command centers – and said the days are gone when police at the State Fair “engaged almost exclusively in [public relations efforts].”

“We’re not immune”

“We’re not immune” to what is occurring elsewhere in society, Hammer told PRM. “Knowing that you have to have a metal detector to get in – OK, you know, I wish we didn’t. But that’s a reality of the times right now. That just is,” he said.

Hammer also said that the State Fair may also – tangentially, at least – be affected by the riots in Minneapolis in 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd.

“There are folks that are concerned about coming to the Twin Cities,” he said.

“What they think of is Lake Street in May of 2020. That’s all they see,” Hammer said, referring to the riots and looting along the busy south Minneapolis thoroughfare.

PRM’s interview with Hammer came three days before the State Fair announced on Dec. 6 that it was bringing back its own police department. The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office had provided security for the 2021 event.

This year’s incident at the front gates was the second consecutive time that the last night of the State Fair had been marred by violence. (The State Fair was not held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). In 2019, a pedestrian was critically injured near the main gate and three men were shot and wounded nearby on the State Fair’s last night. Hammer, at the time, called the episode “maddening” and said “that anyone would bring that kind of behavior to the doorstep of the State Fair, I mean, come on.”

The new documents offer a glimpse at the trouble that ensued this year as police tried to close the State Fair’s main gates along Snelling Avenue on Labor Day, the traditional last day of the fair. The problems that occurred that night came at 8 p.m. as officials, following the incidents in 2019, moved up the closing of the fair by an hour.

In a statement to PRM following this year’s fair, State Fair officials did not list the trouble that occurred in 2019 as its reason for moving to an earlier closing time, and instead gave a variety of other explanations, including the fact that many school-age children in Minnesota would begin fall classes the next day.

“The fair’s staff addresses operating hours for attractions, buildings, barns, performances and gates on an annual basis,” the statement said.

Earlier closing time “appropriate”

“On the last night of the fair, many vendors and concessionaires begin to break down their set ups and all buildings and exhibitions close earlier especially when you taken into consideration staffing challenges and that most schools start the following day, so an hour earlier close time was appropriate,” it added.

The statement said that the earlier closing time on the last night was supposed to be implemented in 2020, but because of the pandemic was started this year. It added that the decision to close the fair an hour earlier was made by the staff, and not the 10-member state fair board.

Bracing for a “contentious situation”

A report filed by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office meanwhile detailed a chaotic scene on the last night this year.

According to the report, officials were bracing for trouble even before they began closing the gates on the last night this year. “Deputies were aware [closing the gates] would make for a contentious situation,” the report said. The report said that workers were able to close two gates south of the main entrance, but that “the gate to the north became overrun by approximately 50 people.”

“I was concerned for the safety of gate agents who may be trampled and injured as well [as] persons with weapons bypassing the metal detectors so I began dispersing chemical agent into the group rushing the gate,” Officer Troy Patterson wrote.

“The crowd retreated back out the gate and those who were incapacitated were physically removed from the grounds before the gates were secured,” he added.

One staff member, according to the police report, saw a man with a gun in his hand coming through the gate and the staff member grabbed for the gun, falling to the ground with the suspect. As a second staff member then tried to grab the gun, Patterson said he “began dispersing [a] chemical agent. [It] was then the suspect fled back out toward Snelling Avenue.” The suspect was unable to be identified, the report stated.

A Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office spokesman told PRM in late November – more than two months after the fair ended — that no arrests related to the incident at the front gate on the last night have been made.

Media reports showed that the events at the State Fair’s front gate were not the only trouble on the last night this year.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher also said that a half dozen fights broke out on the fair’s last night, with most taking place on the Midway and including known gang members.

Concerns about crime meanwhile had been cited in litigation brought against the State Fair earlier this year — just prior to the start of the event.

Hours before the State Fair began in late August, a Ramsey County judge ruled that permit holders would not be allowed to carry their handguns onto the fairgrounds. In a lawsuit, the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus and others had sought a temporary injunction to keep the State Fair from enforcing its handgun ban. The lawsuit pointed to one plaintiff’s concern about “rising crime” as a reason for seeking to carry a licensed handgun at the event. In denying the plaintiff’s injunction request, Judge Laura Nelson wrote that courts “have repeatedly recognized a compelling government interest in public safety” and that “the right to bear arms is not without limits.”

Over more than 160 years, the State Fair has been Minnesota’s favorite end-of-summer event and before the pandemic drew more than two million visitors annually. A report said that the 2018 State Fair generated $268 million in year-round economic impact in the Twin Cities.

The State Fair has long been portrayed as a wholesome family event, and features everything from the annual crowning of Princess Kay of the Milky Way – the winner gets her likeness carved in butter – to the 26,000 gallons of milk that are served each year at the All You Can Drink Milk booth.

But this year’s State Fair drew more than 824,000 fewer people, with officials blaming the drop on the lingering pandemic. The State Fair set a record in 2019 with 2,126,551 people attending.

Gov. Tim Walz denounced the violence following the injuries and shootings on the fair’s last night in 2019. “If the State Fair symbolizes community, gun violence is the antithesis of that,” the governor said. “It shatters our sense of community and safety.”

In his interview with PRM, Hammer said he did not know when attendance at the State Fair, in the wake of the pandemic, would rebound. “There are people out there that are going to be reluctant to go anywhere for a long while,” he said.

“Attendance will get back to where it was at some point, but I don’t know when. And we certainly won’t plan on that happening anytime soon,” said Hammer.