For police, Washington State Fair security takes a coordinated effort

PUYALLUP, Wash. -- During the month of September, the city of Puyallup can surge in size from 40,000 people to more than 150,000 on a busy day at the Washington State Fair.

Inside the fairgrounds, officers from across Western Washington are called in to keep the fair – and fairgoers – safe.

“We’ve had a few fights out here and that type of thing,” said Fircrest Police Chief John Cheesman as he walked past a row of carnival games. “Just like anything, when you have big crowds you want to quash it really fast and remember that there’s a lot of kids out here.”

Chief Cheesman has helped with security inside the State Fair for more than three decades, joining officers from around the region who are called on to help manage the crowds.

“You know, it was like a dream for me,” he said. “Come out to the fair. Spend time with officers from all around the county. Come out and interact with the crowds and talk to the kids. What a great job.”

While interactions with the public have become a favorite part of the detail (he’s reached celebrity status among fair vendors), Chief Cheesman says officers in charge of security inside the fairgrounds are prepared for worst-case scenarios. He said officers receive intelligence briefings and are trained to respond to major incidents.

“If we do have a mass casualty event and something does happen – you know, the other day a ride broke down – we were prepared for that," he said. 

While security inside the fair is a tremendous undertaking, outside the fair the Puyallup Police Department is in charge of making sure visitors and residents alike make it through the month safely.

“Obviously the more people that are in town the more issues that come about,” said Sgt. Don Bourbon, who has helped lead patrols outside the fair for two decades.

During the run of the fair, from August 31 to September 23, Puyallup police establish a special zone known as the Fair District. Extending several blocks around the fairgrounds in every direction, officers assigned to the district look out for any issues that come along with the large crowds.

“In my experience over the years, the car prowls and vehicle thefts have influxed in the month of September,” Sgt. Bourbon said. “Anytime you have a population of 40,000 go to anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 on the weekends, you’re going to have more issues with parking, more issues with vehicle prowls, more issues with motor vehicle thefts.

“We’re looking for cars we can stop. We’re looking for individuals that are drunk and wondering in the middle of the road. Domestic violence bumps up a little during the fair," he continued. 

During the fair, Puyallup police are all-hands-on-deck, with the chief of police directly responsible for approving any time off.

“Aside from a funeral and maybe your own wedding, you’re not going to get the day off,” said Capt. Ryan Portmann, the department’s chief spokesman. He stressed the importance of keeping the rest of the city well-staffed.

“The fair's been going on for 100 some years, and we’ve learned a lot over the years,” he said. “I really feel like we try to provide a staffing strategy that reduces the impacts to the citizens.”           

While the fair challenges the resources of Puyallup PD and surrounding agencies, Sgt. Bourbon said all officers involved have a single goal in mind. 

“The biggest thing that we want as a police department is just to make sure that people can come here, that they feel safe here, and that they enjoy their experience in the city.”