ANN ARBOR, MI — Ann Arbor’s police oversight commission is hoping to limit the presence of armed officers at the State Street Art Fair scheduled for July 15-17 downtown.
Frances Todoro-Hargreaves, commission vice chair and State Street District executive director, proposed the idea to City Council this week, suggesting scaling back on the armed police detail normally assigned to stroll the streets on foot and mingle with the crowds during the fair.
“A particular part of my role on the commission has been my daily interaction with policing in the downtown and at the many events that we have in our downtown area,” said Todoro-Hargreaves, who oversees the State Street-area portion of Ann Arbor’s Art Fair, a collection of multiple fairs that run simultaneously and span the downtown.
“Over the last few months, there have been many discussions, both within our commission and across the city, as to what we want policing to look like in our community,” she said, referring to ongoing city talks of having armed officers handle fewer situations across the city, including certain 911 calls.
Todoro-Hargreaves characterized the idea of limiting police presence at the State Street-area portion of Art Fair as a small opportunity to gain insight into how the city could implement similar policies at the city level.
“We would like to hold the State Street Art Fair with unarmed private security and fewer required Ann Arbor police officers on detail,” she told council Monday night, June 7.
Police Chief Michael Cox said he’s open to having more discussions with the oversight commission, Art Fair organizers and others to talk about police deployment and to be sure the city isn’t over-policing or under-policing Art Fair, but he maintains police presence helps deter crime.
Ann Arbor’s Art Fair is one of the biggest art fairs in the country, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors in normal years, he said, though he’s not sure how many will come this year coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Police presence can help deter terrorist attacks and keep people safe, he said, comparing it to the police presence at Michigan football games.
“If you look out into what’s going on in the world, the number of active shooter situations that are happening, I mean, there’s just so many violent, violent things occurring in the world,” Cox said. “Part of our duty and job is to make sure when large numbers of people congregate, that we’re there to provide some public safety and deter anything that might happen.”
Todoro-Hargreaves said 12 police officers overall are normally assigned for the three simultaneous art fairs, including two officers for the State Street area, which includes parts of North University Avenue and Liberty, Maynard and William streets.
The current plan is to still have the usual number of officers for other parts of the fair, so it’s just the two officers for the State Street area that are in question, she said. Also, a University of Michigan officer is replacing one of the city officers for the portion on campus, Todoro-Hargreaves said.
“We’re not looking to make the fair unsafe,” she said, adding she just wants to explore what options are available.
She doesn’t want to say there should be zero officers in the State Street area, but maybe they could be stationed inside the police substation on Maynard Street, Todoro-Hargreaves said.
She recalled there was some public concern when sheriff’s deputies with large assault rifles were stationed near the Main and William intersection for Art Fair a few years ago, raising questions about whether that was necessary.
Currently the city requires organizers of certain-size events to hire city police officers at overtime rates to operate as security, Todoro-Hargreaves said. Because the officers must be hired regardless of whether the event organizers choose to employ private security, there are communication issues and it’s not entirely clear what purpose everyone is serving, she said.
In addition to the two officers usually assigned to her district for Art Fair, she also hires private unarmed security, which she is able to station across the district, she said.
“The two police officers patrol at their leisure where they feel they should be, and if we do have an incident in the district, we are told to call 911 if they’re needed,” she said.
During the last Art Fair, a person was visibly intoxicated and making violent threats to people moving through Graffiti Alley, Todoro-Hargreaves said.
“This alarmed a number of nearby artists and I was alerted to the disturbance,” she said, adding she called 911 and an officer who was not assigned to her district responded.
“When I asked why she had come, she told me she was already in the area and heard the dispatch and decided to come to the call,” she said. “She went on to handle the situation successfully and resumed her patrol, but at no point did either of my assigned officers arrive on the scene or follow up with me.”
Todoro-Hargreaves now questions why just having private security and being able to call 911 if needed to have a nearby officer respond would not suffice.
The one theoretical advantage of having police stationed at the fair is in the case of a severe incident that would require use of firearms, Todoro-Hargreaves said.
“However, Art Fair has historically been an incredibly safe event, and as far as I know there has not been any occasion on which an officer has ever actually needed to use their firearm,” she said.
Cox agreed the Art Fair has been a relatively safe event, but he’s from Boston and the Boston Marathon also was a safe event “until it wasn’t,” he said, referring to the 2013 bombing.
When large crowds gather, it can provide an opportunity for people with ill intent to do harm, he said.
“I don’t want people to be confused around our presence,” he said. “We’re not there to intimidate people … but we are there to provide public safety.”
The city’s policy on having armed police at events needs to be reevaluated, Todoro-Hargreaves said, suggesting using the State Street Art Fair as a test case.
“We’ve had some initial conversations with the police department and we have already gotten the buy-in from the State Street association, so the final piece of this is council’s willingness to see this go forward,” she said.
Mayor Christopher Taylor said it’s an interesting idea and he will look to fair organizers, community members and the city’s public safety experts to work together to ensure the city does everything it can so the many people who come to Ann Arbor for Art Fair can enjoy the event safely.
MORE FROM THE ANN ARBOR NEWS: