COLUMBIA — Residents across Columbia stepped out of their homes Tuesday evening and got involved in the community, thanks to National Night Out.
The National Association of Town Watch started the event in 1984 to raise awareness of such police programs as drug prevention and neighborhood watch. National Night Out events are typically organized by neighborhood associations, nonprofit groups and police departments. Activities include visits from police and firefighters, safety fairs and cookouts.
The event happens the first Tuesday each August. This year marks the event's 30th anniversary.
Columbia had 13 such events, featuring a diverse selection of host sites, such as country clubs, retirement communities and fire stations.
Hunter's Ridge neighborhood
Each resident of the Hunter's Gate neighborhood in northeast Columbia wore a National Night Out name tag, but that was just for the benefit of the firefighters at Fire Station No. 9. The residents already knew each other.
Neighbors laughed and joked about a recent bee infestation and discussed a possible transition to how they take out their recycling. They seemed unfazed by recent shooting incidents.
"The most often we see police is when we serve ice cream," Neighborhood Association President Bill Pauls said.
The low crime numbers in Hunter's Gate aren't by accident. The group maintains a neighborhood watch. Pauls estimates 30 percent of the households in the 56-house neighborhood actively participate in keeping the homes safe.
Most of the residents come from rural backgrounds, which Pauls credits as the reason the neighborhood is so close-knit and why they keep each other safe.
"We'd like to provide an example for other neighborhoods," Pauls said.
National Night Out for Hunter's Gate is typically held on someone's front lawn, but this year the neighborhood decided to bring the food to the firefighters. Residents brought ice cream, cookies and lemonade to the firehouse at the corner of Providence and Blue Ridge roads.
The evening provided a welcome change for the firefighters, whose usual contact with the community only happens during emergencies.
"The only time we get to meet people is at their worst," firefighter Joel Pauley said. "Anytime you can get more information about the people you're serving it's always nice."
Columbia Country Club Estates neighborhood
After living in the Columbia Country Club Estates for six months, Doug Lippmann sat in his first neighborhood meeting Tuesday. Sitting next to him were about 35 of his neighbors, enjoying hamburgers and desserts.
"I figured this would be a good way to meet people since I'm new in the community," he said.
Columbia Police Department Sgts. Melvin Buckner and John Dye spoke to the crowd in the clubhouse of the country club off Old 63 about receiving reports of vehicle larceny.
"I know this neighborhood has some dark streets, so I urge you to keep your outdoor lights on," Dye said.
Those who attended the meeting said crime isn't an issue as much as traffic and people speeding through the neighborhood.
Residents hold monthly meetings and said Tuesday's was no different than usual.
Greg Wack has been going to meetings for the seven years he has lived in the community. Wack is on the neighborhood board and said cars are the issue he hears the most about.
"But I majorly come out to see my neighbors," he said.
West Ash neighborhood
On Ridgeway Avenue, each resident brought dessert, and Rice Krispies Treats, apple pie and cookies filled a table. While sipping on lemonade, neighbors talked to each other, mostly about their concerns about the lack of speed bumps in the West Ash neighborhood.
Julie Baka manages the Facebook group for the community and said there are around 800 houses in the area. Despite the grumbling about traffic, she said the gathering was more of a social event.
"This is all done to get to know each other," Baka said.
As residents trickled in, children biked on the street with their mothers beside them. Before long, two Columbia Police Department officers and Columbia Fire Department firefighters arrived.
The children playing around stopped and stared with excitement. Ivy Boley, vice president of the West Ash Neighborhood Association, raised her camera to take a picture of the scene.
East Walnut neighborhood
At the East Walnut neighborhood meeting at the Stephens Lake Activity Center, about 20 people congregated to discuss crime and other neighborhood business, as well as to question members of the police force.
James Denninghoff raised a question about how often he sees cars with a broken headlight or taillight and why those vehicles aren't stopped by officers.
"We are understaffed,"said Buckner, neighborhood watch coordinator and one of the sergeants in the Police Department. "You are our eyes and ears."
According to Buckner, the minimum number of officers required to be on duty throughout the city is eight. When shifts overlap, the most officers on duty at once could be up to 18, but that still isn't enough to cover the amount of calls they receive from across the city, he said.
Carol DeHoyos said that instead of homeowners paying an extra property tax proposed by Mayor Bob McDavid to cover the cost of 35 new officers, those who commit the crimes should pay.
"Let's keep these criminals in the lock-up more, which would be better. That could increase revenue to maybe help pay," DeHoyos said. "Let's put it on the feet of the people that are causing the crime. Why make the 98 percent of us that get along pay?"
DeHoyos said she has been concerned with the increased crime in Columbia. She has four sons, all in their 20s who are often they are out late downtown working or hanging out with friends. She is most concerned with the "randomness" of the crimes.
One way to help notice crime within the community is with a neighborhood watch program, DeHoyos said. Yet in order to have signs notifying people about a watch, at least 50 percent of the residents on each street must go through proper training from the Police Department.
"I think the best we can do is watch out for each other," Sharon Hammel said.
Leisure Oak Retirement Community
Two tables filled the small, red-brick family room of the Leisure Oak Retirement Community Tuesday evening. Residents intermingled with police officers at one, while the food took over the other.
Close to two dozen members of the 23-family neighborhood off Oakland Gravel Road squeezed into the room to share the food and get acquainted with the police officers who patrol the neighborhood.
While other communities around Columbia featured outdoor picnics, National Night Out for the retirement community turned out to be a night in.
"It's hot, and they like the air conditioning," event chairman Ruby Lindquist said.
No one can quite remember when Leisure Oaks started participating in the annual event, but everyone agrees it's been well over a decade.
Sgt. Matt Stephens with the Columbia Police Department has been coming to the neighborhood for National Night Out the past four years. He said it was his favorite place to patrol when he worked traffic.
"Everybody was always nice," Stephens said. "When it was hot outside they would even bring you water."
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