The Puyallup Fair can be a world unto itself, a bustling city that springs up on the edge of downtown every September. And a city needs its own police force.
Chief John Cheesman is a familiar face on that force.
Over several hours one day this week, he answered dozens of questions from fairgoers. He kept an eye out for kids who’d been separated from their parents. He dealt with three boys who caused a disturbance on a ride.
He never took a break, sat down or stood still for more than a few minutes.
Cheesman, whose regular job is Fircrest police chief, is one of roughly 60 law enforcement officers from around the region who work during the 17-day fair. They patrol on foot and keep the peace.
It’s considered a good gig, a chance to make extra cash. (The Fair, which foots the bill, wouldn’t disclose exact pay, but a spokeswoman said it’s consistent with wages off-duty officers would draw when working other special events).
The job is hard to get, with few slots opening each year. And it requires some particular strengths:
Fair officers need to be personable, good with kids and patient in the face of a seemingly endless string of questions, such as: Where’s the nearest bathroom?
“You won’t go 21⁄2-3 minutes without getting a question,” said Bonney Lake Police Sgt. Kelly Maras, a supervisor.
Just then, a young man walked up, asking where he could find the whack-a-mole game.
FEW MAJOR INCIDENTS
The officers also deal with more serious issues, such as thefts and assaults.
Dave McDonald, deputy chief of the Puyallup Police Department, which coordinates and oversees the “inside the fair” police force, said Friday there have been 11 arrests so far this year within the fairgrounds.
Even more arrests – 28 as of Friday – have been made in the special fair patrol district outside the grounds, which is activated during the 17 days and patrolled by Puyallup Police officers. (Puyallup officers generally don’t patrol inside the gates during the September fair because they’re needed on the streets.)
The fair, which is changing its name to the Washington State Fair, is one of the biggest in the country, drawing more than 1 million people during its run. It ends Sunday.
Despite the large crowds, officials say there are relatively few major incidents.
There was a stabbing on the grounds in 2009; that same year, there was gunfire at a fast-food restaurant a few blocks away. Both were suspected to be gang-related. No serious injuries were reported in the gunfire episode.
‘LEARNED THEIR LESSON’
Cheesman spent time Thursday walking with Lakewood Sgt. Steve Parr. It took a while for them to gain ground because every few feet someone had a question. Several kids approached and left with stickers and high-fives.
At one point, operators of the Sky Ride – a gondola attraction – asked for help dealing with three 14-year-old boys who were acting up as their cabin soared across the grounds. The manager reportedly felt they should be kicked out.
Cheesman talked to the teens sternly. He summoned their chaperone, the mom of one boy.
In the end, he gave them a reprieve. They got to stay but had to remain by Mom’s side.
Cheesman later said he felt good about the decision. The boys were cooperative, he said, and they were part of an out-of-town group, so expelling them would have meant the rest had to go, too.
He said he felt “they learned their lesson.”
The chance to interact positively with kids is one of the reasons Cheesman likes working the fair, he said.
For some fair officers, it can be a refreshing change of pace. Parr, for example, is in charge of a Lakewood unit dealing with gangs, narcotics and vice.
At the fair, “Your legs are very sore. Your feet are very sore. And the things you get to see...,” he said. “But 98 percent of the people are good, honest fairgoers. They want to come enjoy, buy their scones.”
‘MAKE IT RUN SMOOTHLY’
As night began to fall, Cheesman pointed out how the crowd changed. There were more young adults, fewer little kids.
He started going booth-to-booth. He found Bob Marcoe, who works with his sons Billy and Robby creating and selling treats – including their signature caramel apples – at numerous spots on the grounds.
He stopped by a T-shirt painting booth as well as one that features henna art. At Louie’s, in the restaurant building, he caught up with manager Sandy Rusler. He checked in at the Red Gate.
These weren’t just social calls. With each stop, Cheesman asked questions. How’s the day? Any problems? Any issues that need looking into?
He checked in with Terry Slattery, who’s in charge of many of the fair games. They reminisced about fairs past.
Slattery leaned in.
Working the fair “is a stressful thing for (the officers), even if they tell you it’s not,” he said. “They handle a lot of things. They squelch a lot of things, make it run smoothly.”
TIME GOES QUICK
Some officers who work inside the fair take vacation from their regular jobs. Others log double shifts.
Cheesman has done a mix of both this year.
He’s worked the fair 24 years. When he started, his two daughters weren’t born yet, he said.
As they grew up, “I used to try to get them something every day (of the fair’s run),” he said. “They really loved it because I would leave them a little something – a scone, a stuffed animal. They’d have it when they woke up.”
They’re grown now – one is in college and the other has graduated. Their dad still works the fair.
He showed no signs of slowing down Thursday night, even as crowds began filing out at closing time.
He’d been there for several hours.
“The time goes pretty quick, talking to people, doing things,” Cheesman said. “At the end of the day, you get a little tired. But you really get to know people.”