By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The public will have the chance to weigh in Tuesday on the wisdom of a Santa Rosa SWAT team exhibit that allowed children to handle automatic weapons.
The City Council will hear a recap of the events held during Gang Prevention Awareness Week, Aug. 5-13.
One event, the South Park Day and Night Festival, included an exhibit that has drawn fire for allowing young children to handle an automatic rifle and other weapons used by the city’s Special Weapons and Tactics team. The display also included a tank-like vehicle.
The Santa Rosa Police Department and Mayor Ernesto Olivares have defended the exhibit as a way to help “demystify” the role of police in the community as part of the city’s broader effort to combat gangs.
Critics, however, have questioned whether letting children from a high-crime neighborhood handle such weapons was the right way to break down barriers between police and the community.
Photos taken at the festival show a child aiming an M-16 style automatic weapon and others reaching for a riot gun. The guns were unloaded and locked and a Santa Rosa police officer was monitoring the display, which also included other SWAT gear.
The photos and story spurred hundreds of comments on The Press Democrat website and numerous letters to the editor on both sides of the issue.
Olivares said he wasn’t originally planning to have a staff briefing on the week’s events but added it to the agenda after media coverage of the event focused on the gun issue.
“My concern was that everyone lost sight of what we were trying to do that week,” Olivares said.
Aware that the public and council members might have questions, Olivares said he wanted to make sure Gang Prevention Task Force staff were on hand to put the event in context and answer questions.