Policing On Halloween: Balancing Safety and Fantasy

Let's review some of the things that make patrolling on the final day of October unlike any other day of the year.

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Earlier this week, we reported that the chief of the Dothan (AL) Police Department says he will increase the number of officers on patrol on Halloween in an effort to increase the safety of kids out on the streets for trick-or-treating.

Chief Steve Parrish says that an average of seven children die each year on October 31—most of them are struck by vehicles away from crosswalks and intersections.

Consequently, Parrish plans on increasing speed limit enforcement and also to put more officers on foot patrol with the mission of engaging with the community.

We also reported that the Mt. Juliet (TN) Police Department will be increasing the number of officers on patrol on the final day of October as the agency seeks to ensure the safety of adults and children celebrating Halloween—officers will be enforcing traffic laws and monitoring known sex offenders.

The increase in staffing will also enable officers on foot patrol to interact with citizens in a non-emergency setting.

Just today, we reported that the West Point (MS) Police Department has taken "shop with a cop" to another level, purchasing thousands of Halloween costumes with the intent to give them away to families who otherwise could not afford to outfit their kids for the annual tradition of Trick-or-Treating.

Chief Avery Cook said the costume giveaway is just another way to engage citizens.

The annual spate of news stories about how law enforcement responds to the Halloween holiday offers an opportunity to review some of the things that make patrolling on the final day of October unlike any other day of the year.

Child Safety

According to Safe Kids Worldwide, children are more than twice as likely to be hit by a car and killed on Halloween than on any other day of the year. Kids dart out into traffic from between parked cars. Their vision is diminished by cumbersome masks. They're hopped up on sugar with the burning desire to get more.

In the abovementioned news stories of agencies increasing traffic enforcement efforts and foot patrols, police are looking to minimize this risk in their jurisdictions.

Police nationwide recommend that parents accompany children under 12 years old, and suggest that the bulk of the festivities take place before sundown. If kids are out after dusk, flashlights and glow-sticks are highly recommended.

Another child-safety concern is the increase in availability—and popularity—of "candy" laced with THC. In states where "edibles" are legal, these "treats" are a real hazard, and parents are encouraged to check their kids' Halloween haul for any items that could pose a danger.

The razor-blade in the apple is probably a thing of folklore by now, but drug-infused sweets are absolutely a real threat.

Community Relations

As is the case in West Point, Mississippi, Halloween is an opportunity many police agencies seize upon to connect with the community. Giving away thousands of costumes is a bit extreme, but there are other, smaller ways to make the holiday a special way to connect with kids and their parents.

Police agencies across the country have an awesome opportunity on Halloween to connect with families in a really meaningful and memorable way.

Some departments host Halloween parties at the headquarters building. Others agencies have off-duty officers dressed up as super-heroes visiting children's' hospitals.

Think of it as a version of National Night Out, with an emphasis on connecting with the community's kids in a way that will stay with them as they grow into adulthood.

You have just under a week to come up with something of your own. Make it happen if you can.

Stupid Games

I've been saying for as long as I can remember that on Halloween, children get into costumes pretending to be adults while adults get crazy drunk and behave like children.

Grown-ups somehow see certain holidays as an excuse to pour large quantities of alcohol down their throats and summon their inner-moron. I point to New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's Day, Independence Day, and Halloween.

Among these four annual events, Halloween seems to be the craziest.

The streets are filled with zombies, witches, and myriad other characters of fantasy.

People seem to do the dumbest things—many of those things involving actions intended to scare the living [bleep] out of everyone in the vicinity.

A retired officer—a very good friend of mine—recently told me a Halloween story in which a man dressed up as "Leatherface" from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie was wandering the streets with an actual, running, gas-operated chainsaw.

A chainsaw!

My buddy stepped from his squad car and drew down on him, ordering him to drop the weapon.

Thankfully the guy had the presence of mind to put it down on command, but that incident could have ended much differently.

When people play stupid games, they tend to win stupid prizes.

Officer Safety

Is the "machete" in that guy's hand real or a wobbly plastic prop? What about the "pistol" on that other guy's hip? What about the "grenade" or the "suicide vest" on the person wearing the culturally-questionable outfit?

The fact is, criminals remain in pursuit of criminal activity on Halloween. Just because someone is dressed like a pirate doesn't necessarily mean that the sword he or she is holding was purchased at the costume store at the mall.

Obviously, extreme caution must be taken whenever an officer encounters a person holding something resembling a weapon. The stakes on that go up on Halloween.

Take into account the context of the encounter. Is the subject compliant with commands to drop what they're holding—like the individual my friend encountered holding a running chainsaw—or are they showing the pre-attack indicators you're watching out for on every other shift?

Is your adult subject surrounded by children dressed as cartoon characters or by other potential attackers?

Time and Place

I live and work in the City and County of San Francisco.

Back in 2002, I went on a Halloween date with the woman who would eventually become my bride. We marched in a parade of sorts from the bar where I worked and joined an estimated 500,000 people partying in an impossibly small area of about eight square blocks in the Castro District.

In retrospect, the possibility of calamity was high. With so much booze being consumed and so many people present, something bad was bound to happen.

In retrospect, I'm really not surprised that some maniac stabbed four people that night.

Four years later, another maniac opened fire on the assembled crowd, wounding nine.

After that, the city ended the practice of giving a half million drunk people a free pass to do really dumb and dangerous stuff on streets cordoned off for just that purpose.

I grew up in a time and place where the police only had to deal with teenagers like me "decorating" neighborhood trees with toilet paper.

But where I live now is an entirely different matter, and really bad things sometimes happen on Halloween night—for some reason, Halloween in Fog City is just one of those things.

Like St. Pat's in Chicago, or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or New Year's Eve in New York, ordinarily rational people throw reason into the air and wait to see what happens when gravity does its thing.

If your city has a history of something strange happening on Halloween, be prepared for history to repeat itself.

Be prepared, and be safe out there.

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