How does a police force of approximately 500 officers keep a community of 300,000 residents and thousands more commuters safe?

According to Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon, it doesn't — well, not all by itself at least.

"To keep a community that big safe is an insurmountable challenge," McMahon said Tuesday, Aug. 6, at the county's kickoff ceremony for National Night Out.

"We are successful because of partnerships we have with the community every single day. Tonight we take a special moment to focus on it and highlight it, but these efforts are going on every day and every night in the community without a lot of fanfare."

The kickoff celebration, held at the newly opened Roger Carter Community Center, in Ellicott City, was one of many events held in neighborhoods throughout the county. In addition to the kickoff event, a second main event hosted by Howard County police was held at the North Laurel Community Center.

The purpose of National Night Out is to increase the visibility of police within the community and heighten the awareness of community members in an effort to deter crime.

The tactic is called community policing, and according to McMahon, it is working.

McMahon said over the last seven years overall crime in the county is down 10 percent, robberies are down 36 percent, burglaries are down 10 percent and automobile robberies are down 50 percent.

"I think there's a tendency to focus on a few instances and think somehow this is not a safe place and that conditions are deteriorating. It's quite the opposite," said McMahon. "The reality is, in Howard County, we are much safer than we were in 2006."

State Senator and former County Executive James Robey, who was chief of police during the first National Night Out in Howard County, said community policing plays an integral role in public safety.

"It's about getting the community involved in taking a stand against crime," he said. "It's the public sector working with private sector to make our community streets safer."

Among the handful of community members at the kickoff event was Ellicott City resident Linda Firman, who brought her granddaughters Trinity Jordan and Carrington Pope.

"Community policing helps the community converse with police," said Firman. "It's good for police to be visible during good times, not just when something bad is happening."

Ellicott City resident Jaden Kim, who stopped by the event with his daughter, Allison, after exercising at the center, said it was the first he's heard of National Night Out but that "it's a very good idea.

"Knowing more about the police allows us to communicate with them and not be afraid," Kim said.