Safety at ‘forefront’ for local public events

Officials, promoters revisit crowd security plans after Garlic Festival

With the tragic Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting still fresh in South County residents’ minds, local police and event promoters are looking into enhancing their efforts to ensure crowd safety at public gatherings—events that many consider a summertime staple of Morgan Hill and surrounding communities.

These efforts have already begun as the Chamber of Commerce’s Aug. 2 Friday Night Music Series concert at the Downtown Amphitheater added safety measures, including more uniformed police officers on site and a temporary perimeter fence around the spectators’ lawn to restrict access.

The Chamber’s upcoming Taste of Morgan Hill art, food and music festival—set for Sept. 28 and 29 on the city’s downtown streets—will likely have a larger police presence than previous years. Chamber of Commerce Director John Horner said the organization’s staff and board members, working with local public safety professionals, will devise detailed and comprehensive security measures for the Taste of Morgan Hill in the coming weeks.

Horner said he and other Chamber staff met last week with Morgan Hill police and fire personnel and city staff about how to continue safely hosting large crowds in public in the face of increasing threats of violence, brought closer to home with the July 28 shooting at Gilroy’s signature annual festival. The Garlic Festival shooting left three people dead and 13 injured.

Horner said in the days immediately following the Garlic Festival shooting, he pondered whether the Chamber should even continue its summertime Friday Night Music Series, which is scheduled to proceed weekly until Aug. 30. But in the meeting with city and public safety staff, he was convinced the free concert event—which easily draws hundreds of spectators—should go on.

So far, Friday Night Music and other Chamber events have occurred without any major violent or criminal incidents. But since the Garlic Festival, safety is at the forefront of organizers’ minds, Horner said.

Such events, Horner said, are a crucial ingredient in a complex formula that could prevent troubled individuals from considering random violence as a solution to their concerns. Horner said continuing these events is “worth the risk” in an era of mass shootings, despite his fear that even he or his friends could be among the next victims.

“The long-term thing is, how do we all do our part to build a sense of community? How do we make sure not to create more people who are angry and feel isolated,” Horner said. “They’re the ones that, in the long term, are a grave risk to all of us. So we’re going to continue building a sense of connectedness among us. There’s value in what we’re doing for the broader community, so we’re going to keep doing it, even though it’s terrifying.”

Morgan Hill Police Sgt. Bill Norman said he and other officers will soon meet with city staff to discuss plans to enhance local event security in general. He said the city wants to maintain a balance between providing enough officers to ensure safety while trying to avoid “being overbearing with police presence and weapons.”

The Taste of Morgan Hill poses unique challenges for crowd security because it is completely open to the public with no official entrances or exits, Norman explained.

“It’s our goal to make sure everybody feels safe, and is safe, without feeling like you’re going to a police event,” Norman said.

Another inherent challenge is the near impossibility of preventing someone who is determined to cause harm at a public event from doing so. Norman noted that at the Garlic Festival, even though officers on site “acted very quick and solved the problem very fast,” the gunman still wreaked significant violence.

“It’s definitely going to change the way we look at things,” Norman said. “We have a lot of events for a small town, and a small police department. So it’s really difficult to say we’re going to expand officers with limited resources. It’s a fine line but it’s got to get done.”

Morgan Hill Unified School District board president Mary Patterson noted that local school officials reacted to a previous high-profile mass shooting—the 2017 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.—by reviewing and updating safety procedures at all school sites, including for school events.

In the days since the Garlic Festival shooting, school district staff has been focusing on students and staff in need of counseling or other services, Patterson noted. But with one of the country’s latest mass shootings occurring so close to the district—and with high school football season quickly approaching—board members will likely ask staff to look at safety plans again just to make sure they’re up to date.

“This is something that keeps us up at night, even more so as these (shootings) occur every day throughout the country,” Patterson said.

Horner is also a MHUSD board member. He referred questions about the school district’s student and public safety efforts to Patterson and district staff. 

For the Chamber’s Friday Night Music Series, up until the July 28 Gilroy shooting the police department provided additional officers for certain concerts that drew larger crowds, at the Chamber’s expense. Since the Garlic Festival shooting, the Chamber is asking for extra officers every Friday night for the rest of this summer.

Horner explained that a temporary fence surrounding the amphitheater and spectators’ area lawn is intended to regulate the flow of attendees through specific entrances and exits. Emergency responders can easily remove the fencing if there is a medical or public safety incident.

In addition to on-site uniformed police officers, private security guards hired by the Chamber have typically aided in event safety, and will continue to do so. Permits granted by City Hall have long required the Chamber and other event organizers to provide on-site security.

Two San Jose residents—Stephen Romero, 6, and Keyla Salazar, 13—and 25-year-old Trevor Irby of New York died in the July 28 Garlic Festival shooting. Gunman Santino William Legan, 19, of Gilroy, killed himself during a shootout with police in the midst of the massacre.

The shooting occurred about a month after the worst incident of workplace violence ever reported in Morgan Hill. On June 25, an employee who had just been fired from Ford Store Morgan Hill opened fire inside the auto dealership, killing Brian Light and Xavier Souto. The suspect, Steven Leet, shot and killed himself as police arrived to the scene.

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