Police Chief: Pandemic suppressing grieving process after festival shooting

Scot Smithee reflects on tragedy

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Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee speaks to the media following the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on July 28, 2019. Photo: Erik Chalhoub

As the one-year anniversary of the 2019 Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting approaches, Police Chief Scot Smithee wishes the community could mark the occasion by gathering at Christmas Hill Park like they normally would.

“The anniversary date is going to be tough for a lot of people, myself included,” Smithee said. “I honestly wish we were having the festival this year. It would have gone a long way for the healing process. Not being able to have it prolongs the negative side for another year.”

Of course, the three-day Garlic Festival was canceled this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and related restrictions on public gatherings. Smithee thinks the resulting sudden sheltering in place of families throughout Gilroy and beyond “has slowed down” the grieving process for the July 28, 2019 mass shooting that left three people dead and 17 injured.

“We’re going to have a live-streamed (memorial) event (on the one-year anniversary), but that’s not the same as everybody coming together in person,” Smithee said.

But Smithee also pointed out how the 2019 shooting and local response unearthed and highlighted more positive aspects of the Gilroy community than negative. The immediate formation and widespread embrace of the #GilroyStrong rallying call, generous amounts of funds raised for the shooting victims and the support shown by residents for the city’s police stand out to Smithee.

“It brought out a lot of good in people that wanted to make a positive difference. We still see that today,” Smithee said.

In his 30-plus years as a law enforcement officer—mostly with the Gilroy Police Department—Smithee has worked many violent, deadly crime investigations. The 2019 Gilroy Garlic Festival was the worst, he said. 

“In police work, we deal with tragedy our entire careers, and these horrible tragedies stick with you,” said the chief.

Throwing in an argument against recent protesters who wonder why domestic city police departments have become increasingly “militarized” in recent years, Smithee said the July 28, 2019 mass shooting offers an answer. The Garlic Festival shooter, Santino Legan, snuck into the event grounds wearing body armor, with an AK-47 style rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, according to investigators.

As soon as gunshots began to ring out toward the end of the last day of the festival, Gilroy Police officers immediately ran toward the gunfire. Officers Eric Cryar, Robert Basuino and Hugo Del Moral fired their weapons at Legan, striking him multiple times before the shooter turned his gun on himself, according to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s report about the incident.

“The Garlic Festival is a perfect example of why we need some of the (weapons and equipment) we have,” Smithee said.

In the pre-pandemic days of public gatherings—when mass shootings had become increasingly frequent throughout the U.S.—it had become commonplace to see police carrying semiautomatic rifles and tactical gear patrolling events on foot. Smithee said if those tactics can keep the community safe, he doesn’t mind the negative public perception.

Smithee will be one of a limited number of public officials attending a July 28 memorial event at Christmas Hill Park. The event, which starts at 5:15pm, will be live streamed for everyone in the public to watch.

The police chief said he doesn’t know exactly how he will feel when he wakes up that day, knowing a full year has passed since the biggest tragedy in Gilroy’s recent history.

“For me personally, you’re so busy with work all the time that you don’t take a lot of time to think about it” every day, Smithee said. “I think it’s going to be emotional, and (will bring) back all the feelings that have been suppressed; and I think that will be true for a lot of people.”

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