At Garden Village Community Center on the edge of Baltimore City and Baltimore County, some police officers handed out yellow drawstring bags and snacks, while others crossed the street to play basketball with neighborhood kids.
And at 10th Avenue Park in Anne Arundel County’s Brooklyn Park neighborhood, kids saw armored vehicles and fire trucks, watched K-9 demonstrations, played kickball — kids versus the officers, of course — and could even sink an Anne Arundel County police captain in a dunk tank if their aim was good enough.
Civilians and law enforcement officers across the state celebrated National Night Out on Wednesday evening, an annual event meant to engender positive police-community interactions and build trusting relationships through block parties, festivals and other events.
“National Night Out is [a] demonstration of our police department’s strong partnership with our community, one that we experience every day,” Howard County Police Chief Lisa D. Myers said in a statement.
Chiefs and sheriffs said they see this event as a good opportunity to build relationships with residents before they have to meet them on a call.
“Oftentimes, when we meet somebody it’s for the first time and it’s during the worst day of their life,” said Bowie Police Chief John Nesky. “And so we want to start to build those relationships prior to that and …. try to establish a foundation or a base of trust before we go into a crisis situation with somebody.”
Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R) said that this year’s National Night Out celebration is more important than ever because of “all the bad publicity, and the bad rap and all the talk of police reform across the country, and specifically in Maryland.”
And, like Nesky, Jenkins said that it’s important that the community meet his officers in person before they have to respond to a call; to know them “in a different light, in a different setting — when we’re … out showing the public the good things that we do every day.”
“What we do every day … whether it’s good or whether it’s bad, the public experiences it,” he said. “But for a night like tonight, again, they can come up and talk to me — [to] anybody in the agency — and I think it will shed a different light on law enforcement.”
Jenkins ended his phone interview Tuesday by adding that Frederick County does not “experience the pushback against law enforcement that many other counties experience or many other states experience.”
‘Open and direct dialogue’
Several police officials across Maryland said they take pride in holding community events and year-round, in spite of the pandemic.
“Any time we get the opportunity to talk with people and show them we care, is an opportunity to build our relationships with people and enhance the trust they have in us,” Charles County Sheriff Troy Berry (D) said in a statement. “We are fortunate that we have tremendous support here in Charles County and we plan to continue building upon the foundation we have.”
But Lt. Jackie Davis of the Anne Arundel County Police Department said that the end of the lockdown made it easier to discover the needs of their residents.
“As police officers, our job is to interact with the community,” she said, adding that it’s difficult to do when you can’t see anyone in person.
Davis said during a phone interview Tuesday evening that, when asked, most officers will say they joined the force because they want to help people.
“But how are you going to help people if you don’t know what their needs are?”
Ultimately, Nesky said that he’s just happy to meet face-to-face with members of the Bowie community post-lockdown, adding that he believes the “intimate relationship” his department shares with residents sets it apart from other agencies in the area.
“Even during the George Floyd conversations, we did not lose any support in our community,” he said. “We also know that, even though we have the support of the community, we will lose it the minute we take it for granted and the minute that we stop earning [it]. And this is just another chance to reinforce those principles and keep earning that trust.”
Nesky wants the line of communication with his community to be so clear that he is changing the department’s recruitment strategy from targeting new recruits to allowing the community to bring them to him — with the bonus of a $500 financial incentive to residents if their recruit is hired and passes the training academy.
“That’s us trying to target the community and make them a partner with us in shaping the future of what this department is going to look like,” he said.
Asked what Bowie residents are looking for in a department, Nesky said people want officers who are “fair” and “respectful.”
“They don’t want someone who’s going to occupy their neighborhood; they want someone who’s going to be a part of their neighborhood,” he said. “And there’s a huge difference in that scenario of policing: Are we an occupying force or are we a partner to make your community better? And it definitely should be the latter.”