As the California State Fair opens its doors Friday, Cal Expo police chief Joe Robillard looks forward to “a new tone, a new expectation” to reshape the historically tumultuous relationship between police officers and fair-goers.
In the past, the State Fair has attracted not only thousands of visitors per year, but also gunshots, arrests and violent scuffles between police officers and fair goers.
Last year, shots were fired outside the fair gates on opening night and 50 to 60 people were removed after multiple fights. Three arrests were made, and fights broke out in the parking lot and near the fair’s midway. A police officer broke her leg trying to remove an unruly person.
When asked about the events of that night, Robillard said he saw a large group of young adults leaving the fair at closing time, shortly before shots were supposedly fired. The crime scene was out of Cal Expo’s jurisdiction, according to Robillard.
“I never heard a shot fired,” Robillard said. “No eyewitnesses saw a shot fired. Sometimes people call the police and might elevate things to get a quicker response.”
In 2016, 69 arrests were made at the fair, with crimes ranging from resisting arrest to battery against a peace officer. On opening day in 2008, Cal Expo police dealt with gunfire and fighting; they made 10 arrests.
A man was shot in the foot outside the gates on opening night in 2006. In 2005, a teenager with a semi-automatic pistol fired several shots after an argument with another group outside the fair gates. In 2003, a fair patron was stabbed outside the gates.
One particular arrest in 2017 attracted widespread criticism.
In 2017, three officers forcefully wrestled a black 17-year-old to the ground, the fourth officer handcuffing her. The girl, Shanita Minor, later said she had been standing near the carousel when officers accused her of loitering. In an editorial, the Bee said “ ’loitering’ is precisely what one is supposed to do at a fair.”
“I was just crying and screaming,” Minor told the Bee.
When asked about Minor’s arrest for loitering, Robillard said, “That’s not my understanding of what happened.”
The police chief was not on scene that night, but said that Cal Expo has no policy prohibiting loitering.
“There’s a code of conduct for profanity, running, pushing, and shoving, but there is no policy about loitering,” Robillard said. “People come here to visit the State Fair and enjoy themselves.”
Minor was arrested and led, handcuffed, out of fair grounds. A video shows police officers kneeling on the 114-pound girl. She told the Bee she was targeted for her race. She ended her night at the fair with a fractured thumb, concussion and a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest.
Despite these harrowing statistics, arrests have decreased in number in the last few years, according to Cal Expo spokeswoman Darla Givens.
Only 12 arrests were made last year, compared to an average of 66 arrested each year between 2009 and 2017, and a 10-year high of 93 arrests in 2010.
According to Robillard, the decrease in arrests arose from a series of new, progressive initiatives that include teaching officers deescalation techniques for arrests and encouraging a warm, constructive relationship between police officers and fair goers.
Robillard said that police officers are now taught to be more verbally communicative and calm when approaching someone with unruly conduct, instead of resorting to force.
On fairgrounds, officers can be seen interacting with fair-goers, posing with children in pictures, and handing out carrots to kids to feed to the horses. According to Robillard, children love posing on top of police motorcycles, which flash with red and blue lights.
“It was a new tone, a new expectation,” Robillard said. “And it worked well. One of officers got a bunch of carrots, and the little children loved feeding carrots to the police horses.”
Despite these new initiatives to improve the mend the relationship between officers and the public, State Fair attendance has been in decline for several years.
Fair attendance decreased since an all-time high of 1.045 million people in 2001, hitting a 20-year low of 572,250 last year. With fewer people in attendance, arrests should fall as well.
According to the a 2006 report by The Bee, attendance declines at the State Fair are normal. While attendance to theme parks increases each year, state fairs all over the country have witnessed drops in attendance numbers, including fairs at Illinois, Colorado, and Indiana. Nationally, state fairs have been faltering in the face of theme parks, such as Six Flags and Disneyland, with sleek, modern rides and facilities.