Those looking to see St. Paul K-9 dogs in action during this last weekend of the Minnesota State Fair won’t be happy. That’s because St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter pulled the plug on the event after it had been held daily during the first five days of the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
The mayor directed his Police Department to stop the popular canine demonstrations at the fair on Tuesday after a German Shepherd show dog — not a police dog — bit an 8-year-old boy at the fair on Monday afternoon.
Earlier this week, the mayor decided that the fair demos and all scheduled canine appearances at community events shouldn’t be held while the city is conducting an audit of the Police Department’s K-9 unit. The study is underway and follows several incidents in which police canines have bitten bystanders who were not suspects.
Still, it’s questionable whether canceling the demonstration five days into its fair run was the right response. The St. Paul Police K-9 Foundation has put on the popular evening performances for fairgoers since the 1980s, reportedly without any injuries or incidents. And this year, extra precautions were put in place by the K-9 Foundation. A fence was built around the demo area to prevent direct contact between fairgoers and the animals.
Given that the demonstrations have no history of trouble and that extra safeguards were implemented this year, the exhibition could have continued through the run of the fair. Having positive ways for police to interact with the public is especially valuable during a time of strained police-community relations. And dogs on display and not in close contact with spectators can be better controlled than dogs on the streets with officers.
In past years, each day of the fair up to 300 people watched the animals as they were put through their crime-fighting paces — maneuvering around obstacles, sniffing out explosives and pursuing cops dressed as suspects. It’s a popular tradition that fairgoers look forward to.
That said, concerns about safety on the street are understandable. In July, following several controversial dog bites, Carter and Police Chief Todd Axtell restricted the use of St. Paul police dogs by officers on duty. The most recent case involved an attack on an innocent bystander on the city’s East Side. And a Star Tribune news review of six years’ worth of St. Paul police dog-bite reports showed that officers lost control of their K-9s on occasion, that dogs regularly apprehended people with no instruction from handlers and that some bystanders were attacked.
The mayor told an editorial writer that ending the demonstration is consistent with his “promise’’ to citizens to audit K-9 operations. He said that after St. Paul police dogs failed to respond to commands in three separate incidents, it showed a hazardous pattern the city had to get to the bottom of. When it was brought to his attention that the demonstrations were underway at the fair, he stopped them, with the hope that they and other community events can be resumed based on the findings of the audit.
Hopefully, the study will shed light on what’s happened and how to prevent K-9-inflicted injuries in the future. In the meantime, situations in which the animals can be on display but tightly controlled for a public that wants to see them could be allowed.