image-pumpkin fest security
For the first time, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office brought its SWAT unit to the coast to augment security for the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival. Libby Leyden / Review

The Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival came and went over the weekend with the usual heavy traffic, large crowds and fun activities that make it such a popular event. One notable difference this year was security. 

Following the deadly shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival over the summer, event organizers, city staff and the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office worked to avoid a similar tragedy on the coast. While officials were cryptic about safety leading up to the event, security included more uniformed deputies and the presence of San Mateo County SWAT, an armored vehicle and officers carrying automatic weapons.

“There was a lot of security, but that was what we thought was necessary given the recent events around the United States and, of course, locally at Gilroy,” said Cameron Palmer, president of the Half Moon Bay Beautification Committee that organizes the Pumpkin Festival. He said stakeholders met two to three times a month to plan in the weeks before the festival. “Most people don’t realize the amount of preplanning that went into this event.”

Sheriff’s Capt. Saul Lopez said on Monday that it was too early to determine how much the extra precautions cost. He declined to say how many more deputies were deployed this year.

“In the past, we were able to generate a lot of money and give back to the community, and this may reduce some of our donations, but, in the end, the real benefit is everybody had a good time,” Palmer said. He said the committee hadn’t yet received a bill for security from the Sheriff’s Office. Although the Half Moon Bay Beautification Committee pays the Sheriff’s Office for most of its services, the city of Half Moon Bay will help defer costs, according to Palmer.

Festival spokesman Tim Beeman said there were also modifications to street closures, and barricades were placed in “key locations.”

The specific elements of the safety plan had a purpose, Lopez said. The armored vehicle, for example, was mostly for display, allowing people to learn about it.

“In regard to SWAT being present, this was a small portion of the security plan and their primary focus was to interact with visitors in a positive manner, which they did,” Lopez wrote in an email. “We received countless thanks from visitors and Half Moon Bay residents for making them feel safe. Another reason SWAT operators were implemented was because of their training in emergency response of active shooters and experience in a multitude of high-risk operations.” 

While many expressed gratitude for the increased security, it didn’t quell all concerns. 

“It used to feel like even a big crowd could not change the feeling of Half Moon Bay being a small safe town,” resident Amy Allshouse said. “I still feel that way honestly, but we did need added security, and we might never know if it deterred a person from doing wrong.” 

“I attended with my young son and was still very nervous,” Half Moon Bay resident Amber Williams said. “… Everywhere I went I looked for a ‘hiding place’ if I needed to get my son and I out of immediate danger.” 

Not everyone welcomed the sight of heavily armed law enforcement. Half Moon Bay resident Justin Stockman said he saw a photo of the vehicle and officers and decided not to attend. 

“If it was deemed necessary to deploy soldiers — complete with body armor, assault weapons and camouflage — we felt the event was too unsafe to bring our young kids to.” Stockman said in an email. “… There are plenty of other ways to enjoy the coast and support local nonprofits that don’t require a tank.” 

Lopez said the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t believe the Pumpkin Festival is at a higher risk than other events. However, past incidents like the Gilroy shooting “have brought an increased concern for more security at every event in the Bay Area,” he said. 

“Unfortunately, we have to prepare for the worst-case scenario since active-shooter incidents have occurred in both urban and rural areas,” Lopez wrote in an email. “Ultimately, it is my responsibility to provide the best security plan for a safe and fun event.”

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