By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Young children attending a festival in Santa Rosa’s South Park neighborhood Saturday were allowed to handle weapons used by the city’s SWAT team, causing some to question the appropriateness of such a display at a family event promoting safe communities.
Photos taken at the event show a Santa Rosa police officer talking with a group of youths as a young boy holds a fully-automatic assault rifle while looking through its sniper scope. Another shows a boy perhaps as young as 5 years old grabbing the grip of a riot gun on a table covered with gear beside the city’s SWAT command vehicle.
The images, which were circulated by email among a group of concerned citizens, were forwarded to Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Marsha Vas Dupre, who said she was “alarmed and devastated” by the display and questioned the judgment shown by police.
Attila Nagy, who snapped the photos and circulated them, said he’s in favor of community outreach by the police, but thinks they’d get a better response if they left their military-grade arsenal at home.
“What are young people learning from this?” Nagy asked. “No matter how you justify it, no matter how you twist it, it’s the promotion of violence.”
But police and event organizers defended the display as a successful community outreach effort that is in line with the department’s efforts to demystify law enforcement generally and its SWAT team in particular.
“We encourage our cops to get out of the car and interact with the community,” Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said.
The South Park Day and Night Festival is put on by the Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County, a social service agency that works to improve the lives of low-income families. The South Park neighborhood adjacent to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds is one of the city’s poorest. The event in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, which is in its third year, included music, activities for kids, booths about health resources, and an evening movie.
The SWAT display included the SWAT command vehicle, several police officers with SWAT training, and a military-style personnel carrier the public was allowed to enter. Officers also had a police dog on hand.
The fully-automatic rifle is a variant of an M-16. The weapon on the table in the photo is called a sage gun that fires “less-than-lethal” rounds, Schwedhelm said. Both were unloaded. Other gear on display included a bulletproof shield, helmet, gas mask and pry bar.
The department has participated in the event for three years, and the community response has been positive, Schwedhelm said. One officer who patrols the area used the opportunity to play soccer with kids. Children and adults got to pet a police dog. And the SWAT display included the weapons they use.
“Whether you like it or not, our police have guns,” Schwedhelm said.
Elaine Holtz said she was shocked to see children encouraged to play with deadly weapons at the event.
Holtz is a member of the city’s Community Advisory Board who was staffing its booth when she wandered down to the SWAT area. At first she saw children playing in what she called the “tank” and didn’t have any problem with that.
“Then I turned around here’s this child holding a semi-automatic rifle,” Holtz said. “That’s when the grandmother and the mother in me really thought ‘Wait a minute.’”
Holtz said she asked the officer, Perry Plattus, what the goal of the display was, and he responded that it was for “gun control,” Holtz recalled.
But for young people already exposed to violent video games and gun violence in their own neighborhood, Holtz said she doesn’t see how letting children handle real-life weapons fosters gun control.
“Why even put that kind of fantasy into a young person’s mind?” she said.
Just like a K-9 demonstration showing the swift attack of a police dog can help educate people not to run from them, a display of SWAT firepower can have a way of teaching people that “this is not a weapon to be messed around with,” Schwedhelm said.
“Why do you think the police have weapons like this? It’s because that’s what’s needed to make the community safer,” he said.
The police presence was welcomed by residents, some of whom were concerned about attending an evening event in their park, said Oscar Chavez, executive director of Community Action Partnership.
“It was because they knew that there was going to be a strong police presence that we had such a good turnout,” Chavez said.