Despite their expertise with flames, Columbia firefighters tried to avoid the heat Tuesday night.
Firefighter Brian Wattenbarger stood outside at Douglass Park, watching Columbia police Officer Mike Hayes flip burgers over a smoky grill, but Wattenbarger didn’t help with the cooking duties.
“We’d have to get on our gear,” Wattenbarger joked as he watched Hayes stack burgers for hungry First Ward-area residents who had come to the park to meet area patrol officers for the first annual Crime-Free Festival.
First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton organized the festival for her neighborhood in Douglass Park in honor of the 22nd year that Columbia has celebrated National Night Out, when police encourage neighbors to organize events to meet each other and area patrol officers. The event was one of about 25 throughout the city, and although each neighborhood celebrated differently, the theme remained the same: crime prevention.
Crayton said the goal of the First Ward event was to “teach (residents) how to be very aware of what’s going on in their surroundings and not to let (crime) overtake them.” She said that when the event first started, residents admitted that they were hesitant to report crimes in the area. But now, they want to become involved in crime-prevention efforts, she said.
Patrika Brown, 14, became a police cadet after her family encouraged her to join. Cadets in the program help officers with public events and learn about the department.
“We see cops actually trying to help people,” Brown said. “You see it from a different point of view.”
Jeffery Lawhorn, a First Ward resident, came out to meet people from his community. He said he was happy to see groups from different backgrounds interacting.
“I see a lot of integration, a lot more than I’ve seen when I was a kid,” he said. “It gives people higher self-esteem.”
Lawhorn said that he thought the police do a decent job, but that the community should try to stop crime, too.
“Every time something illegal takes place, we’ve got to fight back with something legal,” he said.
Residents of Leisure Oaks, a retirement neighborhood off Oakland Gravel Road that hosted another National Night Out event, admitted that few illegal events take place in the neighborhood, but they still look forward to meeting officers each year.
“We like the policemen to know where we are,” said Paula Mayse, a resident who has helped organize the event for about 10 years. “We rely on those black-and-white cars.”
The residents, who live in 25 small homes in a fenced-in area and are all over 55 years old, gather for a monthly potluck in a central family center. Mayse said there is little crime in the area, but Leisure Oaks residents do rely on firefighters from a nearby station when they have medical emergencies.
Columbia police Officer Jim Blaska, who has patrolled the area for 16 years, said the community’s concerns have not changed much over the years.
“Mainly with this generation, they don’t want to bother the police, so we try to get them to bother us when they have problems,” Blaska said.
He said he appreciates the opportunity to “let them know that we appreciate their support as much as they appreciate our work.”
Across town on Cherry Hill Drive, part of a newly developed residential and commercial subdivision near the intersection of Chapel Hill Road and Scott Boulevard, residents said they also look out for each other. But they were surprised when officers told them their area sees more petty crime than they thought.
Scott Decker, a Columbia police officer who patrols the area, said newer neighborhoods often experience juvenile vandalism and theft from cars — incidents that usually go unsolved. The neighbors laughed knowingly when Decker mentioned that the sign for the neighborhood’s Corona Street is frequently stolen, but they were not aware of more serious incidents such as a recent car theft in Katy Lake Estates subdivision.
“We need to make residents aware of those kind of things,” he said. “Generally, a lot of people are unaware of problems going on in their own backyards. In today’s society, we don’t know our neighbors as well as we should.”
John and Stacy Stringer, who organized Tuesday’s gathering at the neighborhood pool, said they see officers regularly patrolling the neighborhood, and they know their neighbors well.
“It’s so family-oriented and such a friendly neighborhood,” Stacy Stringer said.
Decker said newer developments like the Stringers’ neighborhood face different problems than established areas of town, especially in developments where roads were not improved to handle increased traffic flows.
— Missourian Reporter Kim Adams contributed to this report.