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A night out of crime
Annual C.O.P.S Festival offers glimpse behind badge

DULUTH - When Zachary Bankston, a Cub Scout from Lilburn, found himself at the trigger of a 40mm grenade launcher, the look on his face suggested a feeling of invincibleness.

His Pack 552 compadres stood beside him in awe.

"It was kind of heavy," said Bankston, 8, reflecting on the experience. Of the Gwinnett County Police Department SWAT team who introduced him to the weapon, Bankston said, "I think they're very honorable."

That sentiment was echoed Tuesday night among the hundreds at the 10th Annual C.O.P.S. Festival in Duluth - probably the least wise place in Gwinnett to do something wrong this year.

All Gwinnett police units were represented at the festival, which acts as a conduit between police and their constituents.

The event also recognized members of Gwinnett's C.O.P.S - or Community Oriented Police Services - groups who strive to keep crime down in area neighborhoods. One neighborhood in each of Gwinnett's five districts was elevated to "master" status.

The motorcycles, helicopter, Fire Department displays and myriad of weapons on hand at the Gwinnett Center kept even the youngest festival patrons enthused.

"I like it," said Nathan Cargio, 8, pointing toward a SWAT team table stacked with flash-bangs and pepper-gas grenades. "I wonder what that would feel like."

Officers were on hand to explain such enthusiasm.

"The kids like something tangible," said Gwinnett police Sgt. Roy Smith. "All kids are fascinated by public safety and law enforcement."

The festival typically attracts between 3,000 and 5,000 patrons in one night, said Gwinnett police Lt. Dennis Spradley.

"This is basically the police department giving back to the community," Spradley said. "We try to bring out as many people as we can to show the citizens who support us, we support them."

But the festival has a serious side as well.

Sgt. Joel Whitt led demonstrations of tactics used at Gwinnett's stellar new Training Center: Handcuffing techniques. Take-down maneuvers. Weapon disarmament.

The bread-and-butter of safe policing, basically.

"Tonight is actually very positive," Whitt said. "It's a good opportunity for (the public) to see what recruits go through."

Lilburn resident Randi Bankston helped lead the Pack 552 Bears from table to table during the educational event. Bankston said the youngsters are required to learn the ways of police.

With the C.O.P.S. festival, Bankston hit pay-dirt.

"This shows how the police force works as a whole," Bankston said. "I thought this would be the perfect venue."