Hundreds of fairgoers filed into bleachers for the St. Paul Police K-9 Foundation demonstration on Tuesday night, expecting a show.
But they left disappointed. The daily event had been abruptly canceled.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter told the police chief to discontinue canine demonstrations at the State Fair, shuttering the popular dog programs for the first time in more than 30 years.
The mandate comes in light of an ongoing audit of the Police Department’s K-9 unit, prompted by several high-profile incidents where police dogs have bitten bystanders who were not suspects.
Five days into the Great Minnesota Get-Together, Carter made the decision to cease canine demonstrations for the remainder of the fair’s run — as well as all scheduled appearances at community events, press secretary Liz Xiong said Tuesday night.
“The mayor looks forward to resuming this tradition next year, once the K-9 audit has been completed,” she said.
Carter phoned Police Chief Todd Axtell on Monday evening after learning that a German shepherd show dog — not a police dog — had nipped an 8-year-old boy at the fair that afternoon. That incident played a role in his decision, Xiong said.
Police spokesman Steve Linders said the chief respected the mayor’s authority “and did what the mayor told him to do.”
The St. Paul Police K-9 Foundation has put on nightly performances for fairgoers since the 1980s. At 7 p.m. each night, a typical crowd of 250 to 300 people spends 45 minutes watching canines sniff out would-be explosives, maneuver obstacles and attack officers dressed as suspects.
Exhibitions are meant to show how the dogs can help local police departments fight crime.
“For 30 years, the demonstrations have been an important educational and community engagement tool — plus free enjoyment for those who attend the fair,” said Linders, who is unaware of any incidents involving police dogs performing at the fair.
This year, the K-9 Foundation added extra precautions by constructing a fence around the demo area so no one from the public could come in contact with the canines.
Jerry Romero, foundation board chairman and president, blasted the mayor’s mandate Tuesday night as “a radical decision” in the middle of an event.
“I thought it was too quick,” said Romero, whose nonprofit supports the K-9 unit and raises funds for necessary equipment. He said fairgoers constantly approach their booth to ask “What time is the demo?” then wait hours for it to begin.
“A lot of people look forward to it. The officers like getting out there and interacting with the public.”
Romero contends that it’s not fair to punish the K-9 unit for an incident it wasn’t involved in.
State Fair Police spokeswoman Brooke Blakey confirmed that the boy who was bitten Monday afternoon — 2½ hours before the K-9 show — leaned too close to a kennel in the Pet Pavilions and got his nose nipped by a nonpolice dog. The child had only scratches and didn’t require treatment at a hospital.
In July, following a string of controversial dog bites, Carter and Axtell dramatically restricted the use of St. Paul police dogs, saying they would be deployed only when officers or citizens face “a clear and immediate danger.”
The most recent case involved the attack of an innocent bystander on the city’s East Side. Graphic body camera footage of the incident showed the dog ignoring more than a dozen orders to stop biting as the victim, Glenn L. Slaughter, writhed on the ground and cried out in pain.
A Star Tribune review of six years’ worth of St. Paul police dog bite reports showed that officers lost control of their K-9s on occasion, dogs regularly apprehended people with no instruction from handlers and that some bystanders were attacked while officers were following common practices.