Three hundred public safety vehicles proceeded through Columbus streets Tuesday evening with sirens blaring — but not for any emergency.
Tuesday marked the city’s 13th Annual National Night Out, a national event created to encourage communities to come together in an effort to organize against area crime. The event is also meant to promote familiarity and good relations between Columbus citizens and public safety officials.
Representatives from the Columbus Police Department, Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, Marshal’s Office, District Attorney’s Office left the Columbus Civic Center at 6 p.m. in seven convoys to fellowship with area communities.
Assistant District Attorney Katie Hartford represented the District Attorney’s Office during her first National Night Out Tuesday. She said the event was important in building a relationship between government agencies and Columbus residents.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to interact with the neighborhoods,” Hartford said. “It’s a good opportunity to reach out to people and say, ‘If you need us, if you ever want to talk to us, we’re here.”
Appreciation from residents was tangible — 33 neighborhoods provided barbecue, ice cream, pizza, games and other entertainment for the convoys that visited their area.
Members of the convoys came prepared with gifts of their own. Children were given frisbees, toys, candy, stickers and hats. Officers gave neighborhood kids a chance to explore patrol cars and motorcycles, showing off blue lights and the tools housed in officer’s belts.
“This is one of the more enjoyable nights for me each year,” said Sheriff John Darr, who journeyed with one of the convoys through five local neighborhoods. “You get to see how much people care about their local law enforcement. These people don’t have to do this. These people do this out of the kindness of their hearts.”
Many of the neighborhoods participating in the program have greeted participating public safety officials yearly since the local version of the event began. The Lindsey Creek Civic Association has participated since 2000, and many residents say the program has been successful in aiding community strength.
Civic Association President Willie Brown said the event has aided neighborhood efforts to stay vigilant against neighborhood crime.
“When you see something that seems unusual or out of the way here, you make the call,” Brown said. “We like to continue the communication line between officers and the community so the people know who’s serving them.”
In neighborhoods where National Night Out has become a longstanding event, participating becomes generational.
Lindsey Creek resident Crystal Massey, 25, said she used to love watching National Night Out on her grandmother’s porch when she was young. Now, she brings her son Jacob out to the event.
“Most people my age are afraid of the police,” Massey said. “I try to teach my son that you don’t have to be afraid of police. They’re here to help you.”
For some residents, the annual visit is not only greatly appreciated, but something to be replicated throughout the year.
Hilton Woods and Club View Heights Neighborhood Association Founder Fred Sanford said he hoped public safety officials would consider hosting more events throughout the year where residents could actively bolster neighborhood unity and solidarity with law enforcement.
“Once a year is not enough,” Sanford said. “We weren’t halfway organized before our Neighborhood Association.”
Sanford said he also appreciated the event because it showed local officials’ dedication to the city.
“A lot of the guys out here are off duty,” Sanford said. “They’re donating their time and spending time away from their families.”
Many officials who participate in the event say the night away from home is worth it for the chance to interact with citizens in a more relaxed environment — and to send the message to area criminals.
Motor Squad Officer Jacob Jackson said National Night Out was a welcome chance to meet residents outside the parameters of day-to-day law enforcement operations.
“We get to interact with the community in a way we don’t when we’re on duty,” he said. “If we could do this all the time, I guarantee you crime would go down.”