Halloween safety may be impossible, city officials say

Brawl between rival groups, resultant gunfire mars fairly peaceful holiday street party

After 10 people were injured when shooting erupted during The City’s annual Halloween celebration in the Castro district, the question remains whether the crowded event can ever be rendered totally safe.

Police Chief Heather Fong on Wednesday said officers responded to the scene of the shooting immediately upon hearing the gunfire, but they were still too late to catch the suspect, who bolted through the crowd.

“In a large crowd, officers can’t see everything at every moment. When you have a group on the side, squaring off with each other, calling each other names … it’s very hard to see that unless an officer is standing right there,” Fong said in an interview with The Examiner.

“I don’t think you can ever insure [total safety],” Fong said. She said that this year, aside from the shooting, there were comparatively few violent or disruptive incidents.

Toward the end of what police officials characterized as an otherwise calm Halloween celebration Tuesday night, gunfire rang out after two groups of young adults squared off against each other in a verbal confrontation that turned violent.

The City’s annual street party, which normally packs the Castro with hundreds of thousands of revelers on Halloween night, has seen violence in the past. In recent years, shootings, stabbings and assaults have marred the event. Police have made efforts to stem alcohol consumption and violence, including barricading the area and searching revelers as they enter.

“Up until 20 minutes to 11 o’clock the event went very well,” police spokesman Sgt. Neville Gittens said.

At that time, two groups, each consisting of about 15 males aged 15 to 30, got into a verbal altercation in the 2200 block of Market Street, Gittens said. Hostilities increased when someone in one group hit a member of the rival group in the head with a bottle. In response, someone in the “victim” group pulled out a gun and opened fire.

Nine people were wounded by gunfire and another was hurt when a woman was either trampled or fell and hit her head, Gittens said. Of the 10 people injured in the melee, two were admitted to San Francisco General Hospital and eight were treated and released. None of the victims suffered life-threatening injuries. Three women and seven men were wounded. About half the people wounded are thought to have been involved in the incident itself and the other half were bystanders, Gittens said.

In addition to 500 police officers patrolling the event, 110 sheriff’s deputies conducted security checks at nine entry points and transported arrestees.

The deputies conducted “visual searches,” wherein they confiscated visible alcohol and items that could be used as weapons and looked into revelers bags as they entered the event area.

“There hasn’t been a reason for metal detectors, which are extremely staff-intensive,” Sheriff Michael Hennessey said Wednesday. He said deputies did not pat people down, frisk them or use a metal detecting wand. Frisking, he said, “is a pretty extreme form of intrusion unless you have really good reason for doing so.”

“The violence in the past was notgun-related. It was felt that with the greatly increased police presence the matter would be controlled,” Hennessey said.

Mayor hints at ending celebration as residents struggle for answers

Castro residents are torn over whether they want to see the annual Halloween celebration return to their neighborhood next year or shut down — a remedy the mayor hinted he is considering.

Several residents have wanted the event to fade away for years, according to 28-year Castro resident Gustavo Serina.

“Many of the [residents] wanted the event canceled,” he said. “But, finally Mayor Newsom and other city heads [made it] dawn on us that these people just won’t go away. We have to manage them instead.”

Others argued the celebration is too vital in the historic makeup of the community to simply cancel it. Gary Virginia, an 18-year resident of the Castro, said the event was poorly planned. He said The City should have used metal detectors, collected an entry fee, set a requirement to wear a costume to enter and established an age limit for partygoers.

More than 600 public safety officers were used to confiscate everything from plastic swords to bottled water at the entry gates that cordoned off the neighborhood from Church and Market streets to Castro and Market streets. Virginia said the searches were not thorough enough.

“I’m not sure why they didn’t use a metal detector or at least a wand,” he said. “If [the celebration] is going to happen here they need to frisk people and have metal detectors and have people pay at the gates.”

Mayor Gavin Newsom said The City needs to examine what went wrong.

“There has been violence in the past for this event and that suggests a pattern that must [be] interrupted,” Newsom said on Wednesday. “If we can’t figure out a way to do that, we must consider not having the event … [one] peril of not having it is people showing up anyway.”

In an effort to curb years of increasing violence at the celebration, The City increased its police presence at the event by 25 percent and set an 11 p.m. curfew.

Herb Cohn, of the Castro Community Benefit District, wants to see The City try to return the celebration to the residents and limit the number of outsiders who attend before resorting to cancellation.

“I would like to see the event made safe and I would like to see the event be a festive celebration, but I’m not sure that’s possible,” he said. “It saddened me to see a very fun neighborhood event turn into what amounts to a trashing of a neighborhood by mostly people who don’t live in the neighborhood.”— Sajid Farooq


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