By CURTIS BYRD and JULIE N. COMBS
The Rev. Curtis Byrd is a member of the Santa Rosa Planning Commission, the Sonoma County Human Rights Commission and a vice president of Santa Rosa-Sonoma County NAACP. Julie N. Combs is a member of the Santa Rosa Community Advisory Board.
A child holding a semi-automatic weapon provided by the Santa Rosa Police Department SWAT team (“SWAT exhibit draws criticism,” Aug. 16) at the Day and Night Festival in Martin Luther King, Jr. Park does not reflect a well planned or implemented gun safety program by our police department. Playing with real weapons is not — nor ever will be — an age-appropriate activity.
While we support increased friendly police interaction with children, we question the existence of any appropriate instance or policy allowing a child to freely pick up any weapon without parents’ permission and without providing proper training in gun safety. All Santa Rosa City and Sonoma County law enforcement agencies should immediately rescind any and all policies permitting the assignment of guns by its officers into the hands of children.
The Santa Rosa Police Department’s current strategy to allow our children to engage in recreation with semiautomatic weapons sends a mixed message to impressionable youngsters, glories the use of firearms and works against the basic tenets of gun safety, “Stop, don’t touch, leave the area, and tell an adult,” as prescribed since 1988 by the National Rifle Association Rules for Kids and the California state Department of Justice.
We agree with the countless members and organizations in our community that question handing a gun to a child with no educational component — especially at MLK Park after a mural was dedicated on Aug. 11 in memory of local heroes whose lives represent peace, equality and social justice — paid no respect, lacked sensitivity, proper consideration and planning.
We call upon the chief of police to develop and underwrite a new educational approach which uses age-appropriate activities to teach children safe ways to behave when they encounter a gun and other deadly weapons. Many in our community have warm memories of being taught gun safety and appropriate hunting and target practice as part of their heritage. We believe these can be appropriate bonding activities provided they are done with parental knowledge and permission and use well accepted gun safety norms in an appropriate cultural context.
We need to know that our Police Department is using an effective method for improving relationships between law enforcement and our community; a method that prevents violent crime. We do not believe that handling weapons accomplishes these goals.
We agree with Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm for Sonoma County law enforcement to “get out of the car and interact with the community.” Community-oriented policing was prescribed in the 1997-98 Sonoma County grand jury report’s recommendations to the Sonoma County law enforcement chiefs. The report called for the creation of “a multi-disciplinary approach to developing trusting relationships with citizens, fostering community partnerships and improving citizen understanding of and satisfaction with public services.”
However, we believe that allowing children to handle firearms without training is not the best way to foster this partnership.
The South Park Day and Night Festival was a positive community event. We look forward to participating in it in the future and seeing positive press coverage of the hard work that goes into it.
Their activities on this day should be a model to every neighborhood for including our youth in healthy, fun, educational activities.
Finally we, support all efforts to foster dialogue among community representatives, elected officials and law enforcement in Sonoma County to improve community concerns about law enforcement and reduction in gun violence.
We (including Judy Kennedy of Santa Rosa Neighborhood Alliance; Sonja Taylor and Ernie Carpenter, NAACP first vice president); and many others, look forward to joining in a communitywide effort to create a proactive, responsive, dynamic, collaborative, committed, engaged and well-informed citizenry one neighborhood at a time.