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Santa Rosa council gets earful over kids, weapons display

A Santa Rosa police officer chats with youths at South Park Day and Night Festival (ATTILA NAGY)


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.




20 Responses to “Santa Rosa council gets earful over kids, weapons display”

  1. Rick says:

    There was a post ealier in another string that said the officers WERE asking the permission of the adults with the kids. Different people see different things. Some have said it was illegal for the kids to handle the guns. I know that people want to make this event into a negative. It is not possible. It was positive in every aspect. Kids got to interact with police and vice versa. The kids, if they participated, probably enjoyed it and will remember the positive interaction. How can this be bad? Oh yes, a gun was involved. If you believe guns are a bad thing, then this was bad. If you thinks guns are not bad, then you probably like it, or don’t mind it. I have heard here that gun safety is good, but there is no need for them handle “Assault Weapons”. I disagree. The most popular type of competition rifle is based on the AR, assault rifle, platform, or base design and look very much like those in the picture. It is comortable to shoot and generally extremely accurate. Those involved in the shooting sports, yes, they are sports, even Olympic events, believe exposure to firearms safety is very important. Teaching should come from interest. How do you get kids interested? Exposure. There you have it. SRPD scored on several very positive areas here. Good job.
    As for the gun violence in America, a country I am proud to have served and live in, no child who has ever gone through an organized youth shooting sports program has EVER been a mass murder shooter in this country. EVER. They learned early on that guns were tools to be respected and used, not worshiped. Kids in competitive shooting, 9 year old minimum in some programs, not mine, learn mental discipline and self control. These tpes of events are invaluable. Yes, we have more gun crimes than the UK, but they have 4 times the violent crime rate of the USA. Thank goodness those people in the UK don’t have guns, there would be few left standing. God bless America.

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  2. John says:

    @ Non-violent … I suppose we shouldn’t let our children go to school or church as these have also been places where respected adults have abused the public trust and molested/had sex with children. Where does your accusations od mistrust end?

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  3. Non Violent says:

    I see that the Press Demo lacks the courage to allow my posts which demonstrates exactly why parents should be wary of any police officer offering to “educate” the minor children with guns or other dangerous tools.

    In the last three days, two separate news times locally in the SF Bay Area were reported upon.

    In the first, a cop was arrested for having sex three times a week with his 15 year old cousin.

    In the second, a different cop was arrested near San Jose for having sex with two different teen age boys.

    The badge does not mean anything other than a job category. The person wearing the badge is to be trusted no differently than any other stranger around our kids.

    My request is to the Press Democrat to leave this post intact and on the board. To pretend that cops are safe around children without parental supervision is absurd. The badge is nothing but a job category.

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  4. Liz says:

    I second that!!
    Guns don’t kill people. Criminals kill people.

    And yes why are we all so involved in this? it’s for the parents or guardians of those kids to say how they feel.

    From 1 photo you have no idea what the officer was doing he could have been teaching or not we just don’t know from 1 photo that was cropped.
    This discussion should be over.

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  5. Dave Madigan says:

    A long, LONG time ago, I was taking a driver’s education class at Montgomery High School.

    One day, the teacher had a CHP officer come to the class and give us a speech about driver safety, etc.

    Don’t ask me why….but during that speech, the officer carefully unloaded his service revolver and handed it around the class for the students to look at. He also passed around his handcuffs and baton.

    No one freaked out. No one became obsessed with firearms and mass murders. Most of us turned out well.

    Guns don’t kill people. Criminals kill people.

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  6. Dave Madigan says:

    @John: Very good point. The original picture showed a man standing behind the boys…presumably the father or guardian. Has anyone attempted to contact the parents of those boys to find out how they feel about this?

    That might make too much sense.

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  7. John says:

    The question that hasn’t been asked is Where are the outraged parents of the children who handled the rifles? Why are we all up in arms about something that these parents are apparently ok with? How do we know that these parents were not at the exhibit while their kids were getting their pictures taken which were cropped and spun for political purposes?

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  8. bill says:

    This is a parenting issue. The cop was wrong not to first discuss this with the mother.

    We hire cops to enforce laws and in this case that has not happened. Allowing children to touch weapons is poor judgement at best and a bad example to set for children in light of the fact the parents were not consulted first.

    What have we learned? It is a good idea to keep your children away from cops.

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  9. Joyce Garcia says:

    @ Non Violent why are you so insistent on painting the Police with such a broad brush? This incident you pointed out this time, as well as the one you pointed out in the other blog are horrible and need to be condemned, but neglecting to acknowledge this is not the normal behavior of the entire police force is irresponsible…it would seem you are suggesting this is normal behavior by ALL police which is bigoted behavior on your part.

    Donnie Osmond said it the best….”One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch girl”

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  10. Brown Act Jack says:

    And, why , oh why, was this discussion allowed in the CC meeting, as the agenda was simply for a review of the Gang Act, and there was not a darn thing in the Agenda that suggested they were going to discuss the usage of guns in training sections for the police.

    Oh, I know, the CC and the Press Democrat, don’t care about the Brown Act, even though it was instituted to allow the press full access to information to be conducted in public agency meeting.

    Come on Press Democrat, don’t you care about the city complying with the Brown Act.

    Brown Act Jack

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  11. Brown Act Jack says:

    What a bunch of bollacks. But then passionate beliefs will always ignore facts.

    Most of you are not old enough to remember when high schools had rifle clubs and shooting matchs. and where kids could carry their weapons to school as no one thought that they were raving maniacs bent on shooting every one in the school

    When I was in my early teens I could take my 22 or my 410 shotgun all around San Diego and never be stopped by the police.

    Stopping to ponder on the problem it might be the gun control laws and anti-weapon laws that are causing most of the problems with weapons today.

    Why , you ask? Because children be keep away from things make the children more anxious to get the things. And when they do get them they glory in the feeling of victory in overcoming the ban on weapons possesion and they want to demonstrate to their peers their success in so eluding the ban. And, in the process will demonstrate their macho in their peer group.

    It is possible , is it not?

    Brown Act Jack

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  12. Rick says:

    Maybe they have integrity and won’t lie about it just for political calming. IT WAS NOT AN ERROR IN JUDGEMENT. I was a fine display and it was great to get the kids involved and hands on. So many assumptions here it has just gotten silly. Good luck to you all in the very uncertain, potentionally successful, politically correct future. The grit you taste is the sand in your mouth from the hole you have your heads in. Happy ignorance!

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  13. Eric Newman says:

    You know, this whole episode could have been over in 24 hours if the police chief and the Mayor had simply owned up to the fact that this was an error in judgment on the part of a few officers and pledged that this would not happen again. Then it would not have turned into a national embarrassment for the city of Santa Rosa. C’mon guys, just admit the error and move on!

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  14. Regulate This says:

    Any time guns are mentioned in the press, the left goes nuts. In this case, the police were trying to show kids the tools of their trade, not how to kill people.

    Old lefty Wysocky and his comrades in arms, to coin a phrase, Combs and Holtz chimed in with their mock horror of it all.

    What really happened? Nothing and the kids walked away thinking that was pretty cool.

    It takes a lefty to create a PC issue where none exists so they can all be horrified. These people need to get a life and not a newspaper headline.

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  15. I wasn’t at the event; so I’m hesitant to comment on it. I hope gun safety was used and taught. However, yesterday’s detailed eyewitness accounts suggested gun safety wasn’t taught or used. Just as bad, the Police Chief’s comments yesterday reduced the issue to gun safety; and there is an additional important issue: Did this exhibit desensitize children to violence? Individuals may disagree about what it looks like to desensitize our children to violence, but I expect our officials to acknowledge that we should not do it, as well as reassure the public that steps are being taken to avoid it. At yesterday’s council meeting the Police Chief failed to do this. In fact, he seemed oblivious to the issue. This is concerning.

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  16. Joyce Garcia says:

    “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.”

    Here’s the thing….let me be in charge of what, when and where my children are introduced to weapons, sex education, sexual preference and so forth…I’ll decide how young is too young for my children, which would totally depend on their individual personality. Let me decide if I want my children to be exposed to what ever it is I want them to be exposed to!

    Most kids in that area will learn about weapons……SWAT exhibiting responsibility on safety and forming positive relationships between children and law enforcement? Or some thug on the street in a drug house wrongfully telling our children cops are the bad guys and weapons are to kill those who invade their turf, defend their gang and drugs? I choose SWAT!

    Government needs to stay OUT of decision making for families!

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  17. Non Violent says:

    Today’s news from Southern California:

    Police Officer sentenced to 270 days in jail for engaging in sex with teenager explorer scout that he met through the police department’s explorer program for teenagers.

    A perfect example of why we cannot allow cops to pretend “educational” events without parental supervisor.

    Google the story. It is in today’s news.

    Notice that the cops and their JC class teachers are essentially demanding that parents have no right to complain ???

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  18. Gun owner says:


    This isn’t about the Constitution/Bill of Rights. This isn’t about your or my right to own guns. This is about whether or not we as a community want the cops letting kids handle these weapons. Don’t make this out to be something it’s not.

    I have mixed feelings about the incident and would probably say let’s not do that again, but it’s not getting my knickers in a knot.

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  19. Frank says:

    picking the constitution/ bill of rights apart one word at a time
    these people (Rev. Curtis Byrd and Julie Combs)are comfortable with kitchen knifes why? cuz thay have been properly trained on how to use them

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