For most of the children at Laurel's 29th National Night Out celebration on Tuesday, Aug. 7, the highlight of the night was undoubtedly when the U.S. Park Police helicopter banked around Laurel Lakes, flew over the awestruck crowd and landed on a hillside, just yards from spectators, in Granville Gude Park.
But for Laurel 10-year-old Niles Charles-Horne, the best part of the night was learning about the city's police department.
"I like finding out how they work. ... how they support people, and catch the bad guys to keep the people safe," Niles said.
To Laurel Police Chief Richard McLaughlin, Niles' words mean the event, which attracts about 600 people every year, is serving its purpose.
"It opens up lines of communication with the police and the community," McLaughlin said. "A lot of people don't know all the components (of the Police Department). This is an opportunity to see first-hand what we do."
National Night Out is a nationwide event that aims to strengthen the bond between members of the community and their local police departments. For residents of Laurel, the night also presents a unique opportunity to see local police, fire and rescue officials in action.
In addition to the helicopter landing, patrons saw aPrince George's Countypolice bomb squad robot in action and a pair of police dogs discovering hidden drugs. The crowd even got to witness an officer tase a willing volunteer.
Before, during and after each demonstration, officers fielded questions from patrons, an exercise Niles' grandmother, Maria Coqueran-Belk, said can positively influence a child's perception of a police officer.
"It shortens the distance between police officers and the community," Coqueran-Belk said. "They get to see them on a day where everybody is having a good time."
Coqueran-Belk, a native of Brodheadsville, Pa., said she'd never seen anything like the event before and added that she, like her grandson, was excited by the helicopter landing.
"We loved to see the helicopter," she said. "The kids were so thrilled, I'm sure it's a scene stealer."
Keep the ball rolling
While the event has been a hit in Laurel for many years, it doesn't stop McLaughlin and other city officials from trying to make National Night Out bigger and better.
"The bomb squad is new this year, so are the trucks," McLaughlin said, pointing to two Humvees donated to the Laurel Police this year by nearby Fort Meade. "We try to keep the momentum going by bringing more and more."
Council member and lifelong Laurel resident Edward Ricks said he's been involved with the event since it began back in the 1980's.
"It was small fish back then," Ricks said. "It's much bigger now."
Ricks said the event has grown to be more of a family night by involving civic groups, like the Boy Scouts and police auxiliary, that make a difference in the community.
"I get prouder and prouder every year," Ricks said. "If you stay here long enough, you get a feel for what this community is about."
Lifelong Laurel resident Richard Kluckhuhn, 65, said the event gives him a strong community feeling, and shows a side of Laurel police officers that every resident should see.
"Any interaction police have with the community is great," Kluckhuhn said. "They do what they can for you, and don't expect anything in return. It teaches people not to be afraid, and to respect them."