National Night Out, a nationwide crime and drug prevention event, was scheduled to take place on August 1 at Piney Branch Elementary School but was later cancelled due to thunderstorms.
“I was looking to have a great time on this National Night Out, but Mother Nature had other plans,” Takoma Park Police Department Captain Tyrone Collington said, hopeful for next year.
Takoma Park’s celebration of the event is akin to a “big community BBQ,” with “family reunion vibes,” according to co-owner of Capital City Cheesecake Meaghan Murphy. The event typically features conversation, learning, and entertainment among community members, the police department, and other influential individuals such as educators and local business-owners.
“We have food, games, and a lot of stakeholders from the community and outside the community,” Collington said, emphasizing the importance of building relationships among the attendees. “It’s about crime prevention and information sharing and good entertainment.”
National Night Out is sponsored by the National Association of Town Watch (NATW). According to the NATW website, the campaign began in August 1984, eventually growing into an annual nationwide event typically held on the first Tuesday in August and celebrated by 16,000 communities across the country.
“National Night Out is an annual community-building campaign that promotes police-community partnerships and neighborhood camaraderie to make our neighborhoods safer, more caring places to live,” the NATW website reads. “National Night Out enhances the relationship between neighbors and law enforcement while bringing back a true sense of community.”
When Murphy attended National Night Out for the first time last year, it inspired her to do more for the Takoma Park Community.
“You kind of feel for a moment we are all united, but you want to create that on an ongoing basis. It’s a way for you to come together as a community and remind each other that you support each other,” Murphy said, describing the positivity she felt. “Why wait once a year to have this experience when we can create this experience throughout the whole year?”
The desire to cultivate the spirit of National Night Out throughout the year led to the creation of the Unity in the Community initiative last year by Murphy in partnership with Collington and Mayor Kate Stewart. According to its website, the initiative hopes to strengthen relationships between the city’s police department, elected officials, and the community – especially youth.
“Most of the time, when residents have conversations with police, it’s usually during a crisis, something is going on in their lives,” Collington said. “We wanted to be proactive and come up with a way where we could initiate some positive activities and connect with some positive stakeholders in the community and the police department.”
Murphy emphasized that although Takoma Park hasn’t had a problem with police-resident relations, it’s important to be proactive.
“Instead of waiting for a headline to surface and then being reactive, we look at trying to be proactive in strengthening relationships to eliminate those possibilities from happening in Takoma Park,” Murphy said. “You can see what’s happening in neighboring communities and see what’s happening on a national level and want to be proactive in your community so that it doesn’t enter your community.”
One of the focuses of the initiative is building relationships with youth in the community.
“A lot of young people don’t trust the police because of things that they’ve heard,” Collington said. “They think the police are against them, and we want them to know that’s not the case, and the only we could do that is by strengthening relationships, by having dialogues.”
As a part of the initiative, Collington recently spoke to Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School students at an award ceremony.
“What we’re trying to do by attending events where it’s a positive environment is to make sure when the youth see officers at their school or officers in the environment, their first instinct is not to say, ‘They’re probably here because there’s trouble,’ and that when officers arrive it could be that they’re there to serve, not just to protect,” Murphy said.
Since the inception of the initiative, the founding members have organized youth discussions, school visits, and community events such as a Fourth of July basketball game among officers and community members in an effort to close the gap between police and residents.
“There’s no difference between the police officer and the resident that lives in Takoma Park. It’s just a profession that we chose to be a part of to serve and protect, but at the same time to build relationships,” Collington said.
Ultimately, the initiative hopes to create a supportive environment and change perceptions of both law enforcement officers and community members.
“If we can get people to recognize each other beyond the way we dress, the way we look, how old we are, what neighborhood we’re from – if we could get beyond the things that change our perception, we can recognize each other, then we can de-escalate some of the situations,” Murphy said.
Murphy, Stewart, and Collington continuously meet to develop ideas for programs to strengthen these relationships, but suggestions and input from community members is encouraged.
“If the community has areas where they they want to have people come out and engage on strengthening relationships, then reach out and ask if the initiative would like to get involved,” Murphy said. “It’s important for people to know that whether they’re participating or not, there are people in the community working hard to build unity in the community.”