Santa Rosa Mayor Ernesto Olivares supports the decision by police to allow young children to handle fully automatic weapons during a recent community outreach event in the South Park neighborhood.

The retired Santa Rosa police lieutenant said he helped organize the first such event three years ago and said it was "unfortunate" that critics have characterized the SWAT team display as inappropriate.

"They're way off base," Olivares said of those who suggested allowing children to handle police weapons might foster a dangerous fascination with guns.

Some residents attending South Park Day and Night Festival on Saturday took issue with the display put on by the Santa Rosa Police Department Special Weapons And Tactics team. Photos taken at the event and circulated to city council members showed a young boy holding and aiming an assault rifle and another grabbing for a riot gun. Both weapons were locked and unloaded and handled under the supervision of a SWAT team officer. An armored personnel carrier also was on display.

Attila Nagy, who took and circulated the photos, said the display of fire power and handling of weapons by children in a neighborhood that struggles with gun violence struck him as counterproductive.

"Is that supposed to make children feel secure?" Negy said. "I feel like the whole event was insensitive to the community."

Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm has said the goal of the display was to "demystify" the role of SWAT and tools used by officers. Doing so helps build trust between police and neighborhood residents by breaking down barriers between them, he said.

Olivares said the festival began in 2009 and was spearheaded by the Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force, which he ran until he retired in 2008 to run for the council. The SWAT team has been part of the event every year.

The festival was modeled after a similar program in Los Angeles that organized community events in high-crime areas, such as basketball tournaments between officers and neighborhood residents, Olivares said.

In such non-confrontational, educational settings, young people are invariably drawn to the hardware of the law enforcement trade: the badge, the handcuffs, the gun.

"The stuff attracts them," Olivares said. "There's still this mystique about all this stuff."

Such interactions with young people — and often their parents, too — offer "teaching moments" that allow officers to get across important positive messages, such as the role police play in crime prevention or about gun safety, Olivares said.

As an officer raising his own children, Olivares said he made sure his daughters had the opportunity to hold his service weapon in his presence. He did so because he didn't want them to reach for it out of curiosity when an adult wasn't around.

He said he viewed the Saturday event as performing a similar function between SWAT officers and the families in the South Park neighborhood, with whom he says police have "ongoing relationship building."