National Night Out, the festival police departments will sponsor across South Jersey on Tuesday, could hold more significance this year in the wake of the national debate over responsible policing and public safety.
National Night Out started as a community outreach program in Philadelphia in 1984. Since then, it has grown to more than 16,000 communities in every state.
The carnival-style events give officers a chance to strike up relationships with the public so people will feel more comfortable calling police if they are the victim of a crime or suspect a crime has occurred.
“I think there’s a lot of negativity around policing right now. Events like this show we’re here for the community and that we’re more than just police officers; we’re people, too,” Wildwood Crest police Lt. Robert Lloyd said.
“Any time you get a chance to meet the public on a personal level, it’s important,” Egg Harbor Township Patrolman Robert O’Donoghue said.
Such networking is increasingly important at a time when the national dialogue has been about improving the safety of interactions between police and the public after controversial shootings by police, protests of police and ambush-style attacks on police in the past year. Shootings by police in Louisiana and Minnesota led to public protests across the country. This was followed by deadly ambush-style attacks on officers in Dallas and Louisiana.
“You get kids to see that police are regular people, too. It has an extraordinary value,” said Matt Peskin, spokesman for the nonprofit National Night Out.
Egg Harbor Township moved its event to a bigger venue at Veterans Memorial Park because it has grown so big. The department will host K-9 and SWAT demonstrations, a State Police helicopter flyby and the annual Guns versus Hoses softball game between township police and firefighters.
Departments such as Egg Harbor Township and Atlantic City host community events throughout the year.
Atlantic City hosts regular summer movie nights, Hooked on Fishing Not Drugs, a Civilian Police Academy, anti-drug school programs and a Police Athletic League.
“It’s a chance to share common ground,” Atlantic City police Sgt. Monica Coursey said.
The goal of Tuesday’s event is to put a personal face on law enforcement so the public knows and trusts the officers, she said.
“Everyone should feel safe in their community. Everyone should be safe going about their daily business. They should never live in fear to talk to police or engage any police officer,” she said.
Coursey said police use National Night Out to build a rapport with local children and teenagers, in particular.
“We invite people to step into our shoes as police officers. We want to instill those positive foundations as much as possible,” she said. “Young adults are finding their way, figuring things out. It’s important to always be connected with that age bracket.”
Atlantic City’s National Night Out costs $3,000 to $5,000 per year to produce and has many sponsors, including the police and fire unions, the Beach Patrol, and local businesses and casinos, including Tropicana Atlantic City, Coursey said.