Pickerington police and city officials said they intend to review public-safety issues that arose for a second consecutive year at the community’s Fourth of July celebration in an effort to determine if changes should be made.
A teenage boy who was a bystander watching a fight in the shelter house in Victory Park sustained a broken leg when two other boys who were fighting fell into him.
A video of the incident, as well as accounts of Pickerington police officers’ efforts to disperse the crowd that had gathered to watch the fight, were widely distributed via social media, and Pickerington police Cmdr. Tod Cheney was quoted by a television station as saying the incident came close to sparking a riot.
Five days after the event, Pickerington police Cmdr. Greg Annis said he was at the scene of the fight and was part of a contingent of about 10 officers who were “surrounded by a very hostile crowd” of about 75 people as the fight was broken up and the boy with the broken leg received medical attention.
Annis said it was a tense situation, but he downplayed the suggestion a riot nearly ensued.
“There were 10 of us that were surrounded by a crowd that was pretty hostile, and we had to call a bunch of officers in,” Annis said. “I did call for all units available.
“Riot, I think that might be a bit too strong,” he said, “but we were surrounded, and we did need to get more officers in to de-escalate the situation.”
This year’s incident is not the first time a dangerous situation has occurred at the event.
Pickerington’s 2017 celebration was marred by several teens who reportedly yelled, “Shots!” prompting panicked attendees to run as they tried to exit the park.
After last year’s incident, a number of city officials called for changing the date of Pickerington’s Independence Day celebration from its traditional spot July 4 to another date, including possibly July 3, when Columbus’ Red, White & Boom event attracts large crowds from throughout central Ohio.
Former Pickerington City Councilwoman Cristie Hammond suggested at the time ending the local tradition.
As of July 9, no decisions for how to proceed had been made, but council president Jeff Fix and vice president Mike Sabatino both said they expected a July 4th discussion to be revisited.
“Based upon last year, I made the comment that maybe we ought to look at doing ours on the same day as Red, White & Boom,” Sabatino said. “I can understand how people would want to keep it traditional, but if we have two years in a row where we’ve had a situation, it will be something that I think will receive a full review.”
Sabatino said such a review likely would start with an “after-action” report from the police department that might include recommendations to enhance safety.
Fix agreed and said a decision about how to proceed with the celebration likely would be made before the end of the year.
“We’ll work to find a solution that will be in the best interest of the community,” Fix said. “We want to work to provide our community a Fourth of July celebration that is safe and that is comfortable for our residents.
“I’ve encouraged Mayor (Lee) Gray not to react too quickly,” Fix said. “We need to get all the facts from all the interested parties.”
Last year, Cheney said, five juveniles were taken into custody and two of them were prosecuted for incidents.
He said this year seven people, including six juveniles, were taken into custody and five or six of those initially detained are expected to be charged with various crimes.
Cheney said police shut down the park with about five minutes remaining in the fireworks display and minutes later received reports that about 100 people, mostly juveniles, were congregating at Circle K, 29 Hill Road South.
He said store employees locked their doors after several juveniles began “looting the store.”
“We’re reviewing video tape,” Cheney said.
Cheney said police had “absolutely no problems” with people who had gathered on Pickerington High School Central and Ridgeview Junior High School athletics practice fields to watch the fireworks.
“All the problems were in the shelter house area over in Victory Park,” he said.
Annis said no weapons were believed to have been involved with any of the incidents the past two years.
He said police this year quelled up to a dozen potential fights before they started and there were “a few” physical altercations that took place among the roughly 7,000-8,000 people estimated to be in the park.
Additionally, Annis said, all of those arrested this year were from outside the Pickerington and Violet Township communities.
“A lot of those, if we had a fight, you just took them and kicked them out of the park,” Annis said. “The people we did arrest, they’re not residents of the area.
“We’re not opposed to people coming in from outside the community, but if you’re coming in with the idea you’re going to cause trouble, we don’t want you.”
Annis said the department doesn’t like to share information about how it staffs community events, citing security and officer-safety reasons.
He would say about 10 officers were on duty for the 2017 celebration and the department more than doubled its presence this year.
Additionally, city officials agreed to shut down Lockville Road to traffic. Police wore bright uniforms to be more visible to spectators, and a golf cart was purchased to help patrol in crowded areas.
Annis said police officials might confer with other law-enforcement agencies to see how they handle community events.
”We haven’t written our recommendations yet,” Annis said. “We want to get everyone together because there may be a joint way of doing this better.
“We’re working hard to have a really friendly event,” he said. “We want to make this as family-friendly as possible, and we want the community involved, too.
“We don’t want to go in a rush.”
Gray echoed those sentiments, stating the parade and activities leading up to the fireworks display went off without a hitch.
He said the city’s administration would discuss how other communities provide security for events and would work with local police and council members to determine how best to stage future celebrations.
“Unfortunately, there were some people from outside our community who continue to hijack our event,” Gray said. “It would appear we’re going to have to evaluate what else should be done.
“It takes a little time to do that, but the upside is we have a whole year to work on it. We want to make sure it’s a family-friendly community event.”