For a minute, it looked like trouble. Dark clouds loomed over the parking lot of Cherry Hill Town Center, just as Kiven Rodgers was setting up his snowball stand.
A gust of wind sent straws and spoons flying across the asphalt. Organizers of the National Night Out event huddled under the awning of the Family Dollar store for shelter from the rain.
But the rainstorm passed as quickly as it had come and children soon scrambled to line up for snowballs at the event, one of dozens of National Night Out events held around the region with the goal of improving relations between police and residents.
“Do you see anybody not smiling? Do you see any fights?” asked Col. Melvin Russell of the Baltimore Police Department as he admired the scene.
If the city could hold an event like this every day, Russell predicted, crime would go down drastically.
“It’s hard to shoot my brother when we’re getting snowballs here together,” he said.
In addition to numerous events around the city, National Nights Out were scheduled from Aberdeen to Fort Meade.
The event at Fort Meade was canceled because of extreme weather, according to Fort Meade media relations specialist Sherry Kuiper.
Six people who were part of the setup crew experienced residual effects, such as tingling and mild headaches, after lightning strikes.
Emergency Management Services, which was on-site as part of the event, evaluated each person as a precaution. Five were released on-site. One man was taken by Fort Meade ambulance to Baltimore Washington Medical Center as a precaution.
In Baltimore County, a crowd of about 150, including Boy Scouts, first responders and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, turned out at Patriot Plaza near the historic courthouse in Towson for music and dance.
In Howard County, more than 100 people attended a gathering in the Maple Lawn community of Fulton. Those attending petted police horses, dropped officers into a dunk tank, ate food truck fare and climbed aboard vehicles, including a helicopter.
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman called the gathering a show of local activism, and unity.
“Our police officers, our firefighters, our sheriffs … are here for us, but they can’t always be everywhere, so we need to work together as a community,” he said.
In the parking lot of the Aberdeen Target store, Belcamp resident Kelly Burgos and her 11-year-old daughter, Haylie, picked up information at the National Night Out event that Burgos thinks can help Haylie be safe in other people’s homes.
The mother and daughter talked with members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which was promoting a campaign for parents discussing how they can protect children from being injured by the unintentional discharge of a firearm — including asking whether there are guns in a home their child will visit and whether they are secure.
“We want to build a partnership with [law enforcement],” said Rachel Pedersen, a member of the Harford chapter of Moms Demand Action. “I mean, who doesn’t want to help prevent gun violence?”
In Cherry Hill, Rodgers, 55, dished out snowballs. The top flavor? “Egg custard,” he said.
“It’s about the community coming together,” he said
To Sgt Bernard White, who works with the sheriff’s office, the event came not a moment too soon.
“If we ever need a National Night Out, we need it now,” he said.
Given widespread mistrust of police, White saw the event as an opportunity to win back the trust of the people they serve.
Though officers show up in uniform, he said, they’re not there to make arrests, but to show that they’re part of the community.
The event comes in a year that the Southern District, which includes Cherry Hill, is one of the few areas of the city to have an increase in homicides.
According to the city’s latest crime data, the southern district has had 27 homicides this year, compared with 21 at this point in 2017. Almost every other police district has had a decrease.
While the district’s 35 carjackings this year are fewer than last year, it’s more than every other district in the city except the Northwest, which has had 40.
Still, Cherry Hill residents feel safe there, believing that crime is limited to surrounding neighborhoods like Brooklyn, said Eric Jackson, 32.
“There have always been ebbs and flows in crime,” he said.
Tracey Aikens, 55, agreed.
“If people complain about crime, they not from this community,” she said.
Jackson said he believes the community’s strength was born of necessity.
“Cherry Hill is geographically isolated but also politically isolated from the rest of the city,” Jackson said. “Historically people have had to figure out a way of doing for themselves.”
Many people at the event touted the achievements of the city’s Safe Streets program, which uses people with criminal pasts to prevent violence through mediation and outreach, and other community group efforts.
“We must take care of ourselves,” said Warren Williams Sr., 54, a site director for Safe Streets in Cherry Hill group that works to prevent violence through mediation and outreach. “A lot of us helped tear the community down and now it’s our turn to build it back up.”
Miles north, at another event on 22nd Street, Interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle, who already had visited six sites across the city, called the event “critically important” for the department in its efforts to improve its relationship with members of the community.
As he spoke, 10-year-old Ayanna Herbert proudly wore a police detective’s hat as though she were in a music video.
“He let me,” she said, referring to a now bareheaded detective who smiled and laughed, shaking his head.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters David Anderson, Leah Brennan and Brian Krista contributed to this article.