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Scot Smithee

Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee started as a reserve police officer for the Gilroy PD in 1984. He became Chief of Gilroy PD in December 2016. Chief Smithee has lived in Gilroy and Hollister for 37 years, where he and his wife have raised five children. In addition to being chief of police, Smithee is involved with volunteer service in the Gilroy community. As president of the Gilroy Rotary Club, Chief Smithee volunteered all weekend at the Rotary Wine Garden. On Sunday, July 28, his wife and youngest daughter worked alongside him, as they have for the past few years.

Probably close to five, we made our trek back from the Rotary booths to the police compound. I checked in with the commanders to see how the day had gone, then my wife, daughter and I headed back to the police department where we had parked. My wife and daughter drove home in a different car because I never know when I’m going to actually get to leave. I checked in, turned in all my stuff at the office, and then got in my car to start heading home.

Within a few minutes of leaving the police department, I heard the call on the radio that there was an active shooter at the Garlic Festival. I remember almost a sense of disbelief for the first couple of seconds. It’s like I heard the words, and I knew what the words were, but you’re waiting for something else. It was hard to believe that it was actually happening.

I turned on my lights and sirens and started driving back towards the park. I remember coming through the various checkpoints to get to the emergency access road that takes us down to the police compound. I remember watching a couple of guys dragging somebody that had been shot in the leg. I could see him bleeding as they were dragging him. I remember a pickup truck with people in the bed of the pickup truck clearly doing CPR on someone.

Seeing those things, the reality of the whole thing started sinking in. I had no idea how bad this was. I had no idea how many victims there were. I pulled into the police compound. I was one of the first outside units to actually get there.

As I got out of my car, I tried to get an assessment of what was going on. It was chaos. People were running every direction. They started dragging people who had been shot through our gate into our police compound. Our police compound is a large fenced in area with a mobile command vehicle, like a big motorhome, that said “Police” all over it. It looked like a safe place. That was not really ideal from a command and control perspective because you wanted to keep that area for your police resources, but at the same time, it was the first place that people saw when they were running or carrying injured people. Once that tide started, we were not going to stop it. We had to take care of these people. You couldn’t say, “Stay out.”

The first people that came in were not injured as badly. People were helping them or dragging them. Then the more severely injured people were getting drug in by our own officers. When I first got there, I saw one of my captains. Every year, he takes a week of vacation to volunteer from sun up till sundown at the Garlic Festival. He was wearing his Garlic Festival shirt. He slipped into his police command mode really, really quickly. He took control over what was happening. 

I had to keep from being drawn into the heat of the moment. Help this one person, help that one person. I had to think about the big picture. One of the first things I did was call for the activation of our Emergency Operations Center which bring in lots of resources to support a big operation. If I needed something, it was the EOC’s job to figure out a way for me to get it. For instance, if I needed buses, if I needed food, if I needed barricades, if I needed whatever, we notified the EOC and they took care of it, so we didn’t have to worry about resources at the command post.

Lots of firemen started coming in. One firefighter raised his voice, yelling, “Everybody, eyes on me,” and he went through the process of how we were going to triage all the patients, tag them, and get them ready for transport. Once that occurred, it was like clockwork. It was pretty impressive to watch them working on all these people.

Ambulances started rolling in. I don’t know how many, but it was a lot. They brought the ambulances in from the bottom of our compound and looped them in a horseshoe shape from the bottom of our compound to the top. Ambulances lined up all the way down and around the compound and back out onto the street. They pulled up to where they were triaging the people. When that ambulance pulled away, boom, next ambulance, next victim, and then next ambulance. 

After the first thirty minutes or so, we started getting significant numbers of officers from other jurisdictions. Some command staff members from other police departments, chiefs and captains, people I knew. That was a huge relief. Up to that point, we had myself and one captain, who was technically on vacation for a week and dressed in Garlic Festival attire.

We had pretty reliable information from not one but multiple different witnesses that said there was a second shooter. Some people told us he went back into the creek. Some people told us he ran south into the park. We had to worry about where this other shooter was? Was somebody going to start shooting our officers or start shooting more people? As we called for help, more and more police officers came in from the surrounding areas. We created four-officer active shooter teams. I couldn’t even tell you today exactly how many of those we deployed, but it was a lot. We blanketed that entire park with these teams of officers to protect the people that were still there, and to try and find and/or mitigate the risk of any potential second shooter. That took a while because it’s a big park and there were thousands of people still in there as you moved around. 

If there was a table, a hay bale, a truck, a trailer, a booth, there were people hiding in it. Then you had the vendors that had all their belongings and their vehicles there. They all ran and left everything. You had families that ran in different directions or were not immediately together at the time of the shooting, and they couldn’t find their family members.

My fellow Rotarians wound up in the back of a refrigerator truck. There were a whole bunch of them hiding in there. It wasn’t until one of the active shooter teams swung the door open to check inside, that they were found. That’s just one example. Just one little example. People were hiding everywhere.

As those other police officers started to show, I was able to give them assignments. For instance, a captain from an outside agency rolled in, and I said, “We need to set up a reunification location for all these people. They’re all separated from their families.” We needed a phone number for people to call. We chose Gavilan College. Now how were we supposed to get all these people from the festival to Gavilan College? So we called the Emergency Operations Center and said, “I need buses. A lot of buses.” 

Over 300 people came in that first night from dozens of different agencies. That included federal agencies. The FBI, the DEA, the ATF, Homeland Security. If there was a federal agency or even a state agency, they were there. Other police agencies included the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, San Jose PD, Morgan Hill PD and Salinas PD to name a few. They came in with whole SWAT teams and special units. 

We were lucky. We had personal relationships with agents in all these different organizations. The agents in charge of these various federal organizations, I know all of them personally. They have my cell phone number; I have their cell phone numbers. We meet, we have a relationship. I think that really, really helped. When something goes bad, you have those relationships already established. You’re not calling the big unknown FBI, you’re calling a person you know. 

I talked with an evidence tech supervisor for the FBI about how we were going to manage the crime scene, because it was a crime scene. We couldn’t leave it unprotected. So, not only did we have all these groups doing all these different things, but now you had to set up a perimeter around the entire thing. I think it was about sixty officers to get line of sight coverage around that perimeter. I realized right away that this was a huge crime scene with lots and lots of victims. There was going to be a lot of evidence. For an agency our size, even really for our entire county, it was going to overwhelm our capabilities to process. 

Very early on, the FBI offered to process everything. Four or five teams were on airplanes from all over the country flying to get here to start the process of evidence collection. The FBI had over one hundred crime scene techs on scene, and they spent eight or nine days, sunup till sundown, processing that park. They told me when they were done that geographically, it was the largest crime scene ever processed in the history of the FBI. Twenty-seven acres of processed crime scene, which was big. It’s big.

Think of the logistics, too. We were used to working with 105 employees total, and they all took care of themselves because they lived and worked in our community. Now we had multiple times that out there. They weren’t from here. They didn’t have a locker room. We had to figure out how we were going to support and take care of all those people. We had hundreds of people there every day for over a week. Well, you got to feed them, you got to have restrooms. It was an incredible logistical undertaking. 

 

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A three-officer team engaged the suspect within about twenty seconds of the first shot that was fired. It was a very quick response. When you consider the area they had to cover out there and the number of people that are out there, that’s pretty darn fast. Most people we talked to, including a lot of our own staff, when they heard the first shots, they thought it was firecrackers of some kind. But one officer, who's got some prior experience in Afghanistan and other places, he recognized the very distinct sound of that weapon. He immediately took off running towards the sound of the gunfire, and his two partners took off running after him. When they came in sight of the gunman, the gunman turned and started firing at our officers. 

Those three officers all returned fire. They were a long distance from this guy, 125 feet or so. And they had nothing but handguns, which are not designed for long distance; they're designed for close distances. And that guy's got a rifle that's very high powered, designed for long distances.

When they're taking the rounds from the suspect, they're shooting back. They didn't get excited and shoot everything out of their gun, buh, buh, buh, bum. It was take a breath. Get your sight picture. Boom. Come back down. Get your sight. It was very, very controlled. And they were also concerned about the backdrop - what innocent people were around that could be hit by their rounds?

Between those three officers, they fired a total of eighteen rounds, which was remarkable in and of itself. Eighteen rounds between three people under those circumstances. That was pretty incredible. They hit the suspect seven times out of those eighteen rounds, which was even more incredible that the rounds were that accurate.

It was truly incredible. I've said it before, but I am so proud of the fact that those guys were able to one, get there as fast as they did, and two, keep their calm and be as deliberate and accurate as they were.

There were all these people down, and our law enforcement officers were the only ones there to render aid. At the same time, we were being told there was another shooter so they were worried, “Am I going to get shot while I'm out here in the open rendering aid to people?” Once the suspect was down, once they had him handcuffed, they immediately started running to the victims that were down. There were people that would’ve died within a matter of a couple minutes, but the officers started putting tourniquets on people to stop the bleeding and dragging them to the compound for more formal medical help beyond what we can do. 

The trauma doctors at Stanford Hospital called. They wanted to thank our staff for doing an incredible job. One of the injuries where a person was shot; they were telling us they reacted so fast to save this person’s life. They said that was the first time they actually had a person with that kind of injury show up in their trauma room alive. Nobody had ever made it there alive before.

I don't know of another festival or fair that has security as tight as the Garlic Festival. We have a controlled perimeter. We have controlled access points. We have lots and lots of security and police and EMS. Most festivals don't have all the stuff that we have, and yet we were still vulnerable to somebody that wanted to do bad. 

The fact that our officers took this guy down and it worked out the way it did is miraculous. It's truly miraculous. Very easily it could've been the officers were all killed and then that guy could have just kept on shooting because we didn't have the capacity to meet his firepower.

 

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The day after the incident. We started to develop more information. We did not have a second suspect. We had the crime scene locked down. Now we needed to focus attention on our own people. My biggest concern moved from the investigation of the crime to taking care of our own people. That was a very quick transition for me. 

I am super concerned about secondary trauma. It’s significant. We have a Peer Support Team here in the police department. They do critical incident stress debriefing. We have a chaplaincy program. We also have outside resources available to us. You always have one-on-ones available for people because this affects different people in different ways. We’ve done group debriefings and group counseling sessions where everybody who was in it together shares their perspectives and how it’s affected them.

Sometimes people think that police officers have no emotion, but we’re people just like everybody else. We do this job because we care about people, and when people get hurt or people die, that’s hard…. It's hard, particularly for the officers that worked on the victims that passed away. Two of them were children. There's nothing worse than that. The worst possible thing you could ever deal with is a child that passes away. That never goes away. I don't care how much counseling you go to. I don't care how much you say you got to put that out of your mind. Those things stay in your mind as fresh as the day it happened. I remember every single one I’ve dealt with like it was yesterday, and some of them were thirty-some years ago. It's even more rough when the officers have children that age. It's not something where you go to a couple of sessions or you talk about it a couple of times and now you're all better. It's a long-term thing. 

I've talked to people that were in the San Bernardino shooting a few years ago. All the professionals down there said the worst time for your people is going to be that two to three year mark. I talked to the manager for that division that was attacked and shot up. She was in the room when it happened. She said they lost more people in that two-to-three-year anniversary mark because of psychological stuff. 

We need to stay really, really keen on offering help and making sure people have a way to work through that trauma. The downside is that we still have a police department to run. You deal with trauma. That's part of our job. You have a compounding effect. We know it's going to have long-term consequences. We know that it could end people’s careers. We don't want to lose those people who have trauma. We just ... knowing you need to help them and offering services, and actually having it all work out well are two different things.

 

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We do what we call an After Action Report, like a debriefing, to look at the whole picture from all the different perspectives. Hundreds of officers did thousands of tasks, and you have all this evidence. Compiling all that data into some sort of a meaningful thing takes a long time. How did we handle it? What did we do well? What could we have done better? How do we plan better for the future? It not only benefits us, but it benefits everybody else in our profession. I want to be able to provide information to other agencies. Here’s what we did, but here are other things that we could consider for the future. In our line of work we can all learn from each other.

© 2020 Reed Magazine, San José State University.

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