As the bells tolled the noon hour from Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, evil was afoot in Westminster. Officer Jason Stouffer, lights flashing and sirens wailing, was in pursuit of a gray Nissan Altima westbound on Plaza Street.
Meanwhile, a SWAT team was en route via helicopter.
The suspect drove into Sigler Park and barricaded herself in a Westminster city van with a number of hostages.
The helicopter, on loan from the Orange County Fire Authority, touched down in the Sigler Park ball field. The SWAT team disembarked and boarded their BearCat armored vehicle.
Moments later the team used a flashbang device to disorient the suspect, stormed the van, took in the perpetrator (aka motor Officer Claire Tran), and freed four hostages.
The scene could have taken place for real in any southland city or been portrayed on a police procedural TV show or movie. In this case, however, the drama was staged for a crowd of hundreds of enthralled children and community members as part of Safety Day in Westminster.
For the first time since 2019, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation of the event in 2020 and 2021, the City of Westminster, Westminster Police Department, and Orange County Fire Authority were able to once again present the popular annual event.
For the Westminster Police Department, Safety Day is a chance to interact with a large swath of the community in a positive and dramatic way. Unlike presentations in stuffy meeting rooms, Safety Day is intentionally fluid.
With the Bell chopper whipping up the grass, the BearCat, patrol cars, and motorcycle, it is like the coolest Show and Tell ever. And the pursuit and hostage scenario gave this year’s presentation an extra bit of flair.
“We want to show the community we are out here,” said Stouffer, who plays the pursuit officer role most years.
For Chief of Police Darin Lenyi, who joined the department in October, this was his first chance to participate in Safety Day. The large turnout surprised him and he wondered why other departments don’t stage similar events.
“We’re happy the community came out, and how many children came out,” Lenyi said. “This is all about just having fun and giving them a good show.”
The event has a double benefit for Stouffer, who is also the School Resource Officer for Westminster.
“I get to see the faces of the kids I have to deal with,” Stouffer said. “It’s a good relationship builder.”
At the end of the demonstration, the helicopter that delivered the SWAT team returned to the field. After the helicopter landed, the yellow tape that held back the crowd was lifted to allow access and children charged across the field like it was the Oklahoma Land Rush.
“It’s great, the kids love it,” Stouffer said.
Lauren Reyes, 14, of Tustin, sporting several stick-on badges handed out by various agencies, attended the event with eight family members.
“Not a lot of communities do this and allow kids to experience what it’s like,” Reyes said.
The children, their families, and community members were allowed to pose for pictures with the SWAT team and other officers and were able to look inside the various law enforcement and first responder vehicles.
“This is the highlight of the summer,” said Community Services Supervisor Vanessa Johnson. “It’s pretty rad.”