More than 16,000 communities across the country came together on Tuesday night to improve relations between neighborhood residents and law enforcement officers for the 32nd annual National Night Out.
Towns and cities spanning a wide range of states, populations, and demographic makeups hosted block parties, festivals, and parades in the hopes of promoting “police-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie.” These events featured food, games, safety demonstrations, educational seminars, and most importantly, friendly conversation.
For some communities, such as Baltimore, National Night Out 2015 was particularly timely. The city’s resident-police relations took a turn for the worse in April with the death of Freddie Gray and subsequent rioting, and continued their downward spiral with a summer spike in violent crime. The city’s monthly murder rate in July was the highest it had been in over 40 years, prompting local authorities to enlist the help of federal agents.
"There's never a time where I think we need to come together more as a community," Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at Tuesday night’s events. "Too many in our community know who the perpetrators are. We know who is perpetrating the violence. We need to speak up. We can't be silent.”
Halfway across the country in Minneapolis, Minn., residents of north Minneapolis were focused on breaking down the negative crime-related stereotypes associated with the Folwell neighborhood.
While local children got their faces painted and played with basketballs and jump ropes, their parents chatted with law enforcement officers and city and state officials, including the mayor and governor.
“I wanted to help the elected officials see what really goes on here,” neighborhood resident Marc Cameron, who organized the National Night Out block party in Folwell, explained to the Star Tribune. “It’s something I grew up with: taking pride in the neighborhood.”
More than 1,500 similar neighborhood gatherings took place across the city, the Tribune reports.
The annual event has existed since 1981, but is arguably more relevant than ever today given the "Black Lives Matter" movement, which was born in response to racially biased police brutality. A recent survey conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that a majority of black Americans say they or a family member have personal experience with being treated unfairly by the police.
"To be sure, for many police officers, widespread criticism of police behavior and tactics has been until the past year a largely a foreign concept," writes The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson. "As recently as 2013, Gallup found that Americans think cops are more trustworthy than priests."
This rising distrust in law enforcement is why events such as National Night Out are so important, said Orlando police Chief John Mina in an interview with local television station News 13. But he also stressed that officers should try to foster a friendly relationship with residents every day, not just one night a year.
"We want our officers getting out of their cars. We want them to roll down the windows. We want them to talk to our citizens, especially our kids," Chief Mina said. "I tell our officers every day I want them to somehow touch the life of child. Even if it's just a smile, a wave, play catch, talk about sports, we think it's very important for our officers to interact with our residents, especially our children in those non-enforcement type situations.”