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Santa Rosa City Council gets earful over SWAT weapons display

  • A Santa Rosa SWAT team display during a South Park community event has sparked strong debate. (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 councilmembers 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 “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 chance to make “non-traditional 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.”

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