By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A Santa Rosa City Council review Tuesday night of Gang Prevention Week turned into a referendum on gun control and safety as residents gave the council members an earful about a SWAT display that allowed children to handle automatic weapons.
Critics of the event, some wearing “Guns Are Not Toys” stickers, questioned the wisdom of the police display, which became publicized after photos circulated showing children handling an M-16-style rifle and other weapons.
Elaine Holtz, a member of the city Community Advisory Board who worked a booth at the event, said there was no gun safety education going on that she could see. She said she was “absolutely stunned” when she saw the officer place the weapon into the hands of a child. “I said ‘Wait a minute, this is not what this event is about,’” she said.
Others defended the event, some blasting the media for not reporting the positive elements of the community event in the city’s troubled South Park neighborhood.
Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said the event gave officers a chance to make “nontraditional connections with the community.” The goal of the SWAT display was to show people that “these are some of the tools the police use to make this community safe,” he said.
But Julie Combs said she felt the police had “confused community policing with irresponsible gun handling.” She noted that the parents of the children involved were never asked for their consent, and that little gun safety education took place at the event.
“Let’s stop pretending this was a well thought-out special program,” Combs said.
Others backed the police presence at the South Park Day and Night Festival in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, which in addition to the SWAT display included a K-9 demonstration and other displays.
Brad Connors, who represents the police officers union, said “someone with an agenda” took a photo “that they knew would be inflammatory” and The Press Democrat “fanned the flames.”
He said council members were wrong to suggest the community outreach somehow “desensitized” children to violence. He said there are 15 police officers with SWAT training, many have families and none would ever do anything to harm children.
“These officers have been vilified in the press over the past three weeks for doing nothing more than trying to build positive relationships with the youth of our community,” Conners said.
Several council members lamented that the media attention on the gun issue had taken the focus off the work done by many of the young people who helped organize the event. Several suggested the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force “rethink” the SWAT display for future years, but the council took no formal action on the issue.
Councilman Scott Bartley said he was “taken aback” by the photo when he saw it in the paper. But he called it “truly unfortunate” that the police chief and others involved in the festival were put “on the defensive” by the publicity about the event.
Because the gun debate had become a “distraction” from all the good work done during Gang Prevention Week, Bartley suggested future SWAT displays be changed in the future.
“The reality is we should not do this again,” Bartley said, to a round of applause.
Councilman John Sawyer agreed, saying it was “sad the positive nature of this program was buried in the negative press.”
Since it had become clear the display “stepped on some sensitivities,” Sawyer said he assumed the issue would be “revisited” for future events. But he hoped that this “one glitch” wouldn’t reduce the energy put into future events.
“The community needs it and they want it and I fully expect them to get it because they deserve it,” Sawyer said.
Councilman Gary Wysocky said it was “unsettling” to see not only the photo of the young boy aiming the rifle, but another one of a younger boy reaching for a different weapon.
“It bothers me that he’s reaching for that gun like it’s a toy,” Wysocky said.
Schwedhelm explained that the young boy was reaching for a “sage gun,” which is a “less-than-lethal” weapon. Such weapons also are known as riot guns.
The chief said he wasn’t going to second-guess the judgment of the officer based on a snapshot. It’s entirely possible at the moment that image was taken, the officer told the boy not to touch the gun, Schwedhelm said.
Pressed by Wysocky to say how young is too young to begin gun education, the chief said he wasn’t an expert and he would leave that decision up to the adult in charge.
“If they are feeling that it’s an appropriate age, sure,” Schwedhelm said.
Wysocky, citing the impact of violent movies and video games on children youngsters, said he disagreed.
“The educator in me says that’s a little too young,” Wysocky said.