Additional overhead surveillance cameras and more weekend-duty officers top a list of enhanced security measures for this year's South Carolina State Fair, which runs Oct. 8-19 in Columbia.
The fair also will keep its tighter policy on youth admission, requiring a parent to accompany anyone under age 18 after 7 p.m.
Fair officials say the beefed-up security is not a response to any single event but part of ongoing efforts to ensure a safe atmosphere.
“We can never rest on good security,” State Fair manager Gary Goodman said.
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As part of the added measures, the fair has increased the number of overhead cameras across the grounds while enhancing the video capabilities of several cameras to include detailed facial recognition. Additionally, everyone who enters either of the main gates will be recorded.
“We’ll be able to track down anyone if we need it,” Goodman said.
Goodman said the fair also will increase patrols of Richland County sheriff's deputies on weekends this year. The deputies, who work at the fair throughout the week, are paid from fair revenues, with about $295,000 spent last year, Goodman said.
Sheriff Leon Lott said a pool of 150 deputies will be used during the fair run, performing patrols, checking cars and parking lots and handling other issues. The number of deputies varies, depending on days and times.
The Sheriff’s Department said it issued 21 charges during last year’s fair, which attracted upward of 470,000 visitors. That was up from eight charges the previous year, but none of the charges involved weapons either year, the department said. Typical charges have included disorderly conduct, trespassing and public drunkenness.
Goodman said an increase in the number of unaccompanied youths has accounted for most of the fair’s security issues of late, adding that local law enforcement has effectively curtailed gang activity and other more serious threats outside the fair gates.
During the first weekend of last year’s fair, Goodman said crowds of young people were reported pushing other fair patrons around and otherwise disrupting the flow of movement across the grounds.
“Those were 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds,” Goodman said.
Following those events and a string of violent incidents elsewhere in the city – among them a Five Points shooting during the fair’s run that left a USC freshman paralyzed – the fair tightened its youth admission policy midway through last year’s fair.
Under this year’s admission policy, no one under 18 will be admitted after 7 p.m. without a parent 21 or older. Additionally, anyone 18 and older may be required to show a valid driver’s license or other photo identification as proof of age to be admitted after 7 p.m. or to stay at the fair after that time.
The previous youth admission policy required fairgoers 16 and younger to be accompanied after 5 p.m. by a parent – or a legal guardian – 21 or older.
Goodman said the new policy produced nearly immediate dividends. “We had absolutely no problems the second Friday and Saturday of the fair,” he said.
Goodman said not all of the changes have been greeted favorably by everyone and added that attendance was down slightly the second weekend of last year’s fair. But he said officials consider that a worthwhile tradeoff.
“That’s a very small price to pay for a safe, secure environment to be enjoyed on the fairgrounds,” he said. “If we are not safe, then people are not going to come.”
Goodman stressed that the stricter youth policy is not intended to keep young people away but to encourage parents to be more involved and attend the fair with them.
“We have children that get (dropped off and) left here,” Goodman said. “That's not a pretty part of the fair.”
The increased security measures are among the latest in a string of security upgrades the fair has instituted.
The fair installed metal detectors at the two public entrances for the first time in 2007, three years after a 14-year-old was shot just outside the fair’s Rosewood Drive entrance. About the same time, on the advice of local law enforcement, the fair began more closely monitoring clothing and colors, especially among youths, that might signal possible gang affiliation.
The fair has not had a major security incident approaching the level of the 2004 shooting since the changes were implemented.
Last year, the Sheriff's Department added K9 deputies to patrol inside the fair and around the parking lot.