Festival-goers, city leaders discuss downtown safety after gun incident

Some attendees were very shaken; city says downtown hosts tons of events with few incidents; but those that occur are in spotlight

A gunshot fired into the air during Friday’s holiday parade caused a chaotic scene that could be a setback to years of work to make people feel safe in downtown Dayton.

Some community members said they or their loved ones were shocked and scared by what transpired and they may think twice about attending these kinds of events downtown in the future.

“It was just terrifying,” said Judy Schneider, a 76-year-old Kettering resident who attended the festival with her 9-year-old grandson. “The evening was spoiled for so many people because of a couple of kids.”

But some festival attendees and local leaders said this was a rare incident and they hope one unfortunate event will not taint people’s opinions of the region’s premier activity center, which they say is usually very safe and has much to offer.

“What happened Friday night was very unfortunate and very disappointing and we’re so thankful that no one got hurt,” said Sandy Gudorf, president of the Downtown Dayton Partnership. “But in saying that, we have had so many festivals of all sizes and this is the first time something like this has ever happened.”

Dayton police said there have been nine combined simple and aggravated assaults with a firearm in the downtown area (the Central Business District) this year, and not all of them involved a shot being fired.

Gunshots and shootings occur less frequently downtown than in many other parts of the city, but those downtown incidents — like one earlier this month in the Fire Blocks district — get outsized attention because of how many people work, live and play in the urban center.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

The 50th Dayton Holiday Festival kicked off Friday with activities centered at Courthouse Square at Main and Third streets in downtown Dayton. Officials say likely between 25,000 and 30,000 people attended the event.

But shortly after the children’s parade started, at about 8:11 p.m., a male juvenile allegedly fired a gun into the air near Second and Main streets following an altercation between multiple juvenile females, Dayton police said.

Bystanders ran from the scene, and this caused other festival-goers to start running, even though many people had no idea what was going on.

Schneider, the Kettering resident, and her grandson were having fun at the holiday festival when she said suddenly a “wall of people” came rushing across the street.

Fearing a stampede, Schneider said she grabbed her grandson and they huddled against an office building to try to avoid being run over. When the crowd thinned out a little, they hurried down an alley and hopped on a free shuttle bus to get back to her car.

The parade was quickly cancelled, and some parents grabbed their young children and ran for it, leaving strollers, folding chairs and other belongings behind.

Schneider said she feels awful for the children and families whose fun was cut short. But Schneider said this shows that panic and chaos can be sparked even from somewhat minor incidents because people are constantly worried about mass shootings.

Schneider said next year she’ll likely take her grandson to see the holiday displays during the daytime when there aren’t so many people around. She said she’s never felt unsafe downtown, but she doesn’t want to be put in a situation like that again.

“I will think twice about going to any large gathering,” she said. “All it takes is one person.”

Multiple parade-goers told this newspaper that they had never before felt fear like that and it was a fairly traumatic experience.

Downtown safety

Gudorf said Friday’s incident was disturbing and upsetting, and the fear and alarm it caused cannot be minimized. But she said thankfully no one was hurt and it appears a gun was fired once into the air and was not intended to cause physical harm.

“I know that Friday night was a very frightening situation, and I hope that that doesn’t deter people coming downtown for the holiday season and beyond,” she said.

The Downtown Dayton Partnership and other local groups and leaders have spent years working to combat negative views of downtown and dispel what they say are misperceptions about it being dangerous.

The urban center in general is very safe, especially considering how many major events it hosts and how many people visit regularly to shop, dine, grab drinks and enjoy the attractions and amenities, Gudorf said.

More than 30 police officers were working during the holiday festival, Gudorf said. Police said about 22 officers are normally assigned to patrol downtown. Downtown “ambassadors” also walk the streets to clean, provide assistance to visitors and report any issues like crime, Gudorf said.

The Dayton Daily News this week requested full 2022 downtown crime data, but has not yet received it. To put the nine assaults with a firearm downtown this year in context, through mid-November of 2021, Dayton police had recorded about 355 incidents of violent crimes involving firearms across the entire city.

Dayton Mayor Jeffrey Mims Jr. had just boarded a parade float when Friday’s incident happened. He said it’s very lucky that no one was trampled or injured, and certainly things could have been a lot worse. But he said he’s still upset and hurt by what happened, and he feels a responsibility to do something about it.

Mims said incidents like this too often arise when young people lack conflict-resolution skills, and he wants to find ways to reach more youths and teach them about productive ways to handle stress and conflict.

Mims said downtown is a very safe place that has seen tremendous growth in recent years because it has so much to offer, including good housing, jobs, amenities, recreational options and family-friendly events like the holiday festival.

Like Gudorf, Mims said he hopes this one incident won’t change how people feel about downtown, which has seen tremendous growth in recent years.

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Skyler Rader, 33, of Huber Heights, attended the Holiday Festival for the first time Friday, along with his wife, two children and other family members. Rader said the festival was a great family outing, and for a while, it was an absolute blast.

But Rader said he then heard a loud “pop” sound, saw a police officer near him take off in a full sprint and moments later a huge wave of people started running in his direction.

“It was like something in an apocalypse movie,” he said. “This is something me and my family will never forget.”

Rader said his mind went to dark places and he feared for the worst.

Rader said his family got to their car without any issues and then left the area. He said he wanted to get his kids food after that, but his 6-year-old son Dakota didn’t feel safe and just wanted to go home.

“Me being an adult, I think I can handle that trauma and environment and process it, but he’s just along for the ride in the stroller and does not know what’s happening, and I definitely think it will have a longer impression on him, which is unfortunate,” he said.

Rader said he later learned that someone shot a gun into the air, and that made him feel a little better. But he said that doesn’t change what his kids experienced, and he doesn’t think he will go to the holiday festival ever again because he thinks it could be too stressful.

“Me and mom, now we know the whole story ... you hate for anything like that to happen, but it wasn’t what we thought was happening in the moment, and now that we know that, we feel a bit differently about that,” he said. “But kids can’t really process that.”

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