On Halloween night last year in Sumter, South Carolina, an ex-convict who “thought he was being robbed” shot and killed 12-year-old T.J. Darrisaw, injuring his 9-year-old brother Ahmadre Darrisaw, and their father, Freddie Grinnell. The shooter poured more than 30 rounds from inside his home, according to police statements made in a report from the Associated Press. The family had stopped at the house because the porch light was on — they knocked on his door with the intent to collect some trick-or-treat candy. That family, indeed the entire town of roughly 40,000 residents (according to the 2000 census), will never be the same.
On Halloween night 2006 in San Francisco — a city for many years notorious for its Castro neighborhood Halloween celebration — nine people were shot in an altercation involving two groups of young people, ages 15 to 25, according to press reports. By good fortune alone no one was killed. That incident occurred just four years after police recorded numerous stabbings and assaults in a crowd of more than a half million people packed into an area covering fewer than ten city blocks. What used to be a semi-spontaneous gathering of costumed partygoers had spun wildly out of control.
A city in which a 2006 party was attended by a half million people and a town whose entire population is less than one percent that size, each with similar a similar problem: Halloween.
Dan Marcou, a retired Lieutenant from the La Crosse (Wisc.) Police Department who is now a renown police trainer and PoliceOne Columnist, says that “every street officer who has ever worked Halloween can tell you that it is one of the busiest nights of the year. It is a night when anything can happen. Small town officers find it is a night when normally well-behaved young people feel free to trash neighborhoods, schools, and even their friends' homes. It is a particularly popular night to commit armed robbery since no one notices one more guy with a George Madoff mask, who happens to be running from an all-night stop and rob.”
PoliceOne spoke with Sgt. Wilfred Williams, PIO for San Francisco Police Department, who says that there will be no city-sanctioned Halloween event this year — there hasn’t been since the 2006 melee.
“From city to city, town to town, state to state, Halloween is celebrated differently throughout the country,” said Williams in an exclusive interview with PoliceOne. “Here in San Francisco in years past we’ve had some Halloween celebrations that have resulted in injury. We’ve had robberies and assaults and things of that nature. We do have an influx of people who come to the city that night in addition to those residents already in the city. Some of the associated problems we’ve seen in years past have been pedestrian and traffic increase, fights within the crowd, public urination, property damage, presence of rival gang members, assaults, strong-arm robberies, auto boosting, weapons possession, and alcohol-related incidents like drunk in public — trouble with DUI, DWI, and possession of open containers of alcohol.”
Any one of those things can occur in any given city or town on any given night, but on Halloween all of those things seem to occur on the same night — multiple times — in cities and towns across the country. San Francisco may never again have an official Halloween event, and as noted, Sumter, South Carolina will never forget what many there now call the Halloween tragedy.
Sumter Police Chief Patty Patterson also took time today to talk with PoliceOne via phone. “We have extra patrols that will be out patrolling the streets, looking out for the young people and looking out for any malicious mischief that people may be participating or become engaged in so we can keep everybody from out of harm’s way.”
Williams told PoliceOne says that while they won’t divulge — for obvious operational security purposes — the number of officers on the streets in San Francisco this weekend, the department “will have enough officers out there to provide security and safety and to enforce the goal of zero-tolerance on drinking in public.”
Patterson told PoliceOne that her department of 121 police officers has been working to distribute materials to parents in the area to help ensure that no such heartbreak happens again in Sumter. They’ve issued a series of guidelines for parents to follow regarding costumes, safe locations and neighborhoods in which to attend festivities, and other safety tips.
“When your kids go up to the door of a residence, we’re encouraging parents or an adult supervisor to go up to the door with them. Of course, never let children go into anybody’s house, and be of course to make sure not only is there an outside light on, but also that there are lights on inside the house as well. Unfortunately, T.J.’s family did everything right last year. They had done nothing wrong in their actions — in fact, I commend them that they had gone out on such an outing as a family, as one unit, and still tragedy befell them.”
Really, it’s for the kids
Halloween presents unique problems, and tragically the people at greatest risk are often the ones for whom the annual holiday is meant to be the most fun.
Nancy McBride, National Safety Director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said in a press release on that organization’s Web site that “child safety is important year round, but Halloween is an especially important time for parents and children to pay extra attention to their surroundings and not let their guard down. It is important that parents exercise a few basic safety precautions to help ensure that Halloween is both fun and safe.” McBride and the NCM&C have also posted safety tips you can read below.
In San Francisco, Williams echoed some of those sentiments when he spoke with PoliceOne. “Always make sure those children are accompanied by a parent, or at least an adult, who can provide supervision. And be mindful to always inspect the candy prior to allowing consumption by a child.”
Back in South Carolina, Patterson and her officers have also been distributing signs (recycled yard signs from last year’s election season) that say “Trick or Treaters Welcome Here.”
Staying safe out on patrol
People tend to do pretty idiotic stuff on Halloween, and where you find idiots, law enforcement officers are typically not far behind. In fact, they’re usually either being dispatched to the scene or are pulling up in their squad cars, preparing to quell the mayhem.
“In busy bar areas, you combine alcohol with a costume and a newly assumed personality and you have everything from an especially rowdy crowd to an annual riot,” Marcou told PoliceOne. “Working Halloween is never a treat for police officers.”
As PoliceOne Columnist Dave Smith said earlier this week in this tip, “When something just doesn’t feel right — when it just doesn’t smell like it should — it’s time to heighten your awareness and start attending to those important officer safety points like maintaining distance, awareness of the hands, subject movement, deception, and the like. Most people transmitting fear or deception indicators are simply upset with having contact with the police, however, there is always the simple truth that you may have a truly bad actor and you need to attend to all the signals being sensed.”
Jim Glennon, also a PoliceOne Columnist, writes in this feature, “Halloween is both an opportunity and a snake pit for police officers. It’s a chance to bond with your beat and show the kids that you are human — someone with a sense of humor, someone they can trust. There is a serious downside also however: alcohol flows as much as it does on New Year’s Eve and St. Pat’s. Bring some candy. Wear a silly mask. But remember your vest and your tactics.”
“Officer safety is paramount,” Patterson told PoliceOne, “as well as ensuring the safety of our children and our citizens. Clearly, we’re telling our officers to be vigilant, be cognizant of what’s going on out there, to have a visible presence, to be alert to the type of malicious mischief that may be transpiring out there in the streets, and to ensure officer safety at all times. Unfortunately, that same shift that was on duty during the tragedy last year will be on patrol again this year. I know that has — well, quite frankly more than just ourselves from the police department but the community as well — that has folks more attuned to the issues of safety.”
“Our main goal is to provide safety to all persons, to maintain law and order, protect life and property, and conduct crowd control as well as coordinate traffic control,” Williams said. “The main priority is safety to citizens who come to San Francisco and who live here, and of course officer safety is always paramount — those two things go hand-in-hand.”
Stay safe out there folks. Happy Halloween.
Tips for safe trick-or-treating with youngsters
If you are not working this Halloween, and have children with whom you will trick-or-treat, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has developed a resource that police agencies can distribute to citizens to help ensure the safety of kids in their communities:
• CHOOSE bright, flame-retardant costumes or add reflective tape to costumes and candy bags so children are easily seen in the dark. In addition, carry a glow stick or flashlight.
• PLAN a trick-or-treating route in familiar neighborhoods with well-lit streets. Avoid unfamiliar neighborhoods, streets that are isolated, or homes that are poorly lit inside or outside.
• NEVER send young children out alone. They should always be accompanied by a parent or another trusted adult. Older children should always travel in groups.
• ALWAYS walk younger children to the door to receive treats and don’t let children enter a home unless you are with them.
• BE SURE children do not approach any vehicle, occupied or not, unless you are with them.
• DISCUSS basic pedestrian safety rules that children should use when walking to and from houses.
• CONSIDER organizing a home or community party as an alternative to “trick-or-treating.”
• MAKE sure children know their home phone number and address in case you get separated. Teach children how to call 911 in an emergency.
• TEACH children to say “NO!” or “this is not my mother/father” in a loud voice if someone tries to get them to go somewhere, accept anything other than a treat, or leave with them. And teach them that they should make every effort to get away by kicking, screaming and resisting.
• REMIND children to remain alert and report suspicious incidents to parents and/or law enforcement.