National Night Out: will it help troubled relationships with police this year?

The 33rd annual National Night Out aims to bring neighbors and police officers together. In the wake of rising tensions between police officers and minority communities, the event could help strengthen ties this year.

Charlie Riedel/AP/File
Veda Monday hugs a police officer during a ceremony for fallen Kansas City, Kan. police Capt. Robert Melton in front of City Hall, Wednesday, July 20, 2016, in Kansas City.

"How many of you know the officers in your precinct and neighborhood?"

Former Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell posed the question at a meeting of Next Generation Action Network in Dallas on July 19. The activist group was one of the organizers of a peaceful protest at the beginning of July that ended in a deadly ambush of police officers, leaving five dead and seven wounded and further fraying tense relations between minorities and police officers.

In reply to Chief Blackwell’s question, about two hands from the 75 people assembled shot up, as The Dallas Morning News reported.

People across the country will be taking to the streets Tuesday evening in order to get to know their local police officers. The annual National Night Out event has taken on greater urgency in the wake of the shooting of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge within the past month.

Celebrating its 33rd year, National Night Out events planned across the country bear the hallmarks of a traditional community gathering, with pony rides, hula hooping, dunk tanks, and bounce houses. But add in “Cookies with a Cop” storytime, a bike helmet/safety booth, and meeting your local K-9s: they’re all about building connections with law enforcement officials.

“When it’s done right, it’s almost like small-town America in the big cities,” Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

The annual event was first introduced in 1984 by the National Association of Town Watch, with 400 communities participating, and it takes place the first Tuesday every August. Matt Peskin, president of National Association of Town Watch, told the Monitor he predicts 16,500 communities will participate this year, up from 16,000 last year.

Fifty-six percent of Americans said they had either a great deal or quite a lot of trust in the police force, according to a June 2016 Gallup poll. Police have consistently ranked among the most trusted institutions, according to Gallup polling, but 2015 marked a low point, at 52 percent trust.

“With the climate in the past two years, it’s extremely important that we celebrate National Night Out to show the unity among each other,” Washington, D.C. assistant police chief Diane Groomes tells the Monitor, saying that the Washington police department hosts community events throughout the summer with that purpose in mind. “We have a thing called Beat the Street where we bring music to the streets and with outreach tables from many social services, and Black Lives Matter came out and spoke to us and said they appreciated how the police department is doing outreach versus just law enforcement.”

"The police business is so helter skelter about trying to catch up with emergencies small and large, and this is a chance for people to pause to get to know the police," Dr. O'Donnell says. "It’s a national conversation about crime and the need for police to be involved in the community." 

"It’s crucial when you’re talking about crime and increasingly now terrorism, increasingly the police depend on not only support but information and guidance from the community," he adds.

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