Santa Rosa kicks off its annual Gang Prevention Awareness Week Saturday with one key change from prior years: police officers will not let children handle high-powered weapons.
Photos of children handling assault-style weapons at a SWAT display last year set off a firestorm of criticism.
The police department and Mayor Ernesto Olivares, a retired police lieutenant, defended the display as a safe and effective way of "demystify" the roles of SWAT officers and to build bridges between them and residents of gang-plagued neighborhoods. The guns in question were unloaded, locked and handled in the presence of a SWAT team officer.
But others decried the activity as inappropriate for young children, likely to foster a dangerous fascination with guns and insensitive to the South Park neighborhood. Critics at a City Council meeting wore "Guns are not toys" buttons.
The Santa Rosa City Council complained that publicity of the controversy overshadowed the good work of the evet. Several members suggested the department rethink its SWAT display at the South Park Summer Day & Night Festival.
That's exactly what happened. The SWAT team's display will not include weapons, Capt. Hank Schreeder said.
"We want to be part of the event, and if being a part of it means we have to make some changes, we're perfectly OK with that," Schreeder said.
A SWAT van and mobile command center will be there, and children will be able to don such gear as helmets and protective shields, he said.
City Manager Kathy Millison said the change made sense given last year's reaction.
"We heard from some members of the community that there were concerns that maybe that wasn't the best place to do it," Millison said.
There was no mention of the change at the City Council meeting Tuesday when the council presented a proclamation to Matt Martin, executive director of Social Advocates for Youth and a member of the Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force.
"It takes a community to see dreams. It takes a community to strengthen families. And it takes a community to foster futures," Martin said. Gangs are "a community-wide issue that requires a community-wide response," he said.
The week begins Saturday with a movie in Jacobs Park on West Ninth Street from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. The feature, the animated film Despicable Me, is about a criminal mastermind who learns the error of his ways.
On Sunday, a boxing demonstration put on by the Double Punches Boxing Club takes place from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Santa Rosa Plaza. The program strives to give direction to at-risk youth in the community.
On Tuesday, police will conduct gang prevention training for the public at Finley Community Center. The event will educate about 120 business people, parents and others about gang awareness and trends in Sonoma County gang activity. It is put on by the Santa Rosa Police Department's gang team. Pre-registration is required for the day-long event.
Then on Thursday, the city hosts a two-day conference of the California Cities Grant Prevention Network, at which representatives of the 13 cities in the network will discuss best practices in combating gang violence.
The annual event ends Saturday, Aug. 11, with the South Park Summer Day & Night Festival in Martin Luther King Park on Temple Avenue. It takes place from 2 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. and includes games and information booths of a variety of local service agencies.
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