With blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, a convoy of public safety vehicles was greeted by children waving a huge National Night Out banner when officers arrived Tuesday at the Frank D. Chester Recreation Center on Benning Drive.
The scene was repeated in about 40 neighborhoods across Columbus for its 14th National Night Out, a program aimed at increasing awareness about police programs to combat drugs and other anti-crime efforts. The program was first started in 1984 by the National Association of Town Watch in Wynnewood, Penn.
With more than 125 children and area residents seated in the gym, director Tim Marshall recognized the efforts of police to help fight crime.
“We are in that fight every day,” Marshall told Police Chief Ricky Boren and other law enforcement officials.
Marshall said the recreation center has been part of the annual crime campaign for four years.
“It gives us an opportunity for public safety, not just for the police department to interact with the community,” he said. “We like to stress to some of these young kids whose interactions with police officers are negative. They get to experience a positive note and interact in a positive environment.”
Less than three miles away in the Holly Hills neighborhood, rhythm and blues music from the 1970s was blaring before vehicles reached Playa Delray Drive. A section of the street was blocked for bounce houses for the children, lawn chairs and picnic tables filled with pizza, drinks, homemade muffins and other treats.
Pauline Brown said the Neighborhood Watch program is still making a difference since she and her late husband, Willie Brown, started it with 14 residents. They help keep the program going today, she said.
“Without them, it wouldn’t be nothing,” said Brown, 83. “Crime is everywhere. Neighbors tell me that since we got this, crime is less.”
Brown said it takes about two months of planning to put on the National Night Out program in the neighborhood but it’s worth it. “I’m going to keep on and keep on,” she said.
Near the roundabout on 18th Avenue and Garrard Street, Sheriff John Darr and other law enforcement personnel gathered for refreshments with organizers of the Weracoba and St. Elmo neighborhoods known as The Park District.
Sharon Pierce, the Neighborhood Watch captain for the last three years, said the program helps residents become more aware of one another and interact with officers. “We get to meet the law enforcement and we like that,” she said.
Without the Neighborhood Watch, Pierce said residents would still watch out for one another, but the program heightens the awareness with help from police.
“It heightens everything,” she said.
The neighborhood has residents on an email system to send out alerts whenever needed. “If something happens, we send it out and everybody knows about it really quick,” she said.
Police Cpl. Randy Brown has been a coordinator for the watch programs since the department started organizing 14 years ago. Tuesday’s convoy of public safety vehicles gave residents a chance to interact with police and pat them on their backs without the stress of police getting a 911 call.
”It’s kind of a way for the citizens to come and give back to us a little bit,” he said. “They want to make sure we get a hamburger, a hot dog and ice cream cone. It’s just giving back as much as we are giving to them.”