COLUMBIA - Columbians celebrated National Night Out on Tuesday, gathering in about 30 neighborhoodsacross the city.
The National Association of Town Watch created National Night Out in 1984 to raise awareness and participation in local anti-crime efforts. According to the National Night Out Web site, 35.2 million people in 11,125 communities across the nation participated in National Night Out events last year.
Columbia police Officer Mike Hayes said neighborhoods in Columbia have participated in the event since it began. Thirty-one police officers and 24 firefighters went to smaller events in other areas of Columbia to discuss crime and socialize with the residents. Children across Columbia met police officers, including a mounted officer, and firefighters at Tuesday night’s events.
The Crime Free Festival, a National Night Out event, was held in Douglass Park.
Community members gathered for a cookout hosted by the Columbia Police Department and Positive Impact! Regional Diversified Enterprise, or PRIDE, to show their unity against crime by socializing with neighbors, police officers and firefighters.
Almeta Crayton, First Ward Councilwoman, said she began the Crime Free Festival seven years ago. It used to include a 3/4-mile March Against Crime, but that last year because of hot August temperatures.
“The crime used to be bad, but it has changed a lot,” Crayton said. “People’s perceptions and attitudes have changed. It is important for people to interact with the police so they feel comfortable when something is going on. They can relate to the police and the police can relate back to them.”
Hayes, who helped organize the event at Douglass Park, said the key to having safe communities is having open communication between neighbors, authorities and officials.
“This gives people a chance to interact with their beat officers.” Hayes said. “The purpose is to get to know your neighbors and your community to keep it prosperous and crime free.”
Jim Muench, who held a party at his house, said his biggest concern in the Shepard Boulevard Neighborhood was having more two-way communication with the police.
“Recently, we had a burglary down the street and I don’t know anything about it,” Muench said. “It would be nice to get more information to provide to my neighbors.”
Wendy Stokes, a school resource officer at Rock Bridge High School, said she has attended National Night Out events in Columbia since 1994. Tuesday was the third year that she attended the Crime Free Festival.
“Most of the time when people see the police, it is for a bad reason,” Stokes said. “There is a lot of distrust and anger for the uniform. This is a time to be social, eat and have fun. It’s a time to build relationships with people which helps diffuse situations a lot faster when you are on patrol because you have developed a trust in the community.”
Kay Jackson, 44, said the Crime Free Festival is one of many activities that Columbia’s youths need.
“We need more activities for the youth in our community to keep them off the streets,” Jackson said. “It stops them from selling drugs, being in gangs and other things they shouldn’t be involved in.”
The residents of Country Lane enjoyed a cookout in a secluded neighborhood. This neighborhood was not always formally recognized, but in September 2006, they formed the Country Club Estates Neighborhood Association.
“We use this night as our annual association meeting because it is the best-attended event,” said Jim King, a resident of Country Lane.
The only concern King had about his neighborhood was the underdeveloped areas around the edges of his neighborhood.
“I am concerned what might come in this neighborhood, such as commercial building,” King said.
Residents of the Northeast Neighborhood Association held an ice cream social at the park at Mckee Street and Orchard Lane. Connie Howe, president of the Columbia Neighborhood Association Board, said the crime rate in his neighborhood has dropped in the past two years.
“Drugs were being sold back in the wooded area behind the playground, and I would not let my kids go play basketball,” said Eric Summers, block captain of the neighborhood watch on Boyd Lane and Rice Road.
Bill Provencher, block captain at Mckee Street and Rice Road, said the combination of residents banding together against crime and a police presence in the neighborhood has made a difference.
“The police in this neighborhood are driving through frequently,” Provencher said. “We are motivating (criminals) to relocate.”
Bill Pauls, who lives off Range Line Street, north of Interstate 70, credits his neighborhood’s safety to the tight community. With about 50 houses in their neighborhood association, everybody knows everybody, Pauls said.
Pauls and Rudy Williams, the president of the Hunters Gate neighborhood association, have taken turns hosting National Night Out for the past seven years and pass out flyers advertising the event.
“If your neighbors are friendly and they know you, they are more likely to protect you,” Williams said.
Pauls also said many problems can be solved without the police in areas where neighbors know one another. Residents know the officers who patrol the neighborhood, but don’t need to call them very often.
Residents of the area around Onofrio Court said the event gave their tight-knit community a chance to get together. The community is so close that Columbia police Detective Vance Pitman said he has neighbors who come back for National Night Out after they moved away from his block.
“Even my dog knows which cars belong here,” said Pitman, a block captain for the neighborhood watch on Onofrio Court, near Scott Boulevard, and host of his area’s National Night Out event.
The National Night Out event doesn’t tell people how to stop crime, but brings the community together so that crime becomes more difficult to commit, Pitman said. Several police officers live in hisneighborhood, but what really deters crime is when neighbors know each other, he said.
“You need anonymity to commit crimes,” Pitman said.