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Baltimore County communities work around pandemic to honor police during National Night Out

In a year beset by the coronavirus and nationwide protests against police, some community organizers in Baltimore County say the 37th annual National Night Out has taken on a new meaning.

“I don’t want them to feel like they’re alone,” said Kitty Honaker, who organized an event for the Catonsville Manor community in the southwestern part of county.

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“We want them to know the community’s backing them up, the community is behind them," she said.

About 25 communities in the county have organized neighborhood events the evening of Oct. 6 to celebrate “the men and women in blue,” Honaker said, during a national campaign that emphasizes police and community relationships.

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“The basic premise about National Night Out is about community building and police-community partnerships — which has been extremely difficult because of COVID-19," said Sgt. Vickie Warehime, Baltimore County police spokeswoman.

Events, organized by local community groups, are usually scheduled in early August by the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that promotes the program.

This year, organizers encouraged communities to postpone National Night Out gatherings until Oct. 6 amid the pandemic, according to their website.

There are fewer events being held in the Baltimore County this year, Warehime said, and some precincts have no planned events at all; but the night marks the first community event county police will participate in since other yearly events, like Public Safety Day, had to be canceled.

But that’s why Wesley Woods in Towson’s Campus Hills community said hosting a National Night Out event this year was more important than ever. He noted an Essex National Night Out picnic that was canceled suddenly, due to concerns over the coronavirus.

“We debated whether or not we were ] have it,” he said, but “I thought we need to do something."

Warehime said local law enforcement has still been “doing a good job" maintaining community communication, “but even when you wear a mask, it adds that level or that barrier that we are still trying to break down,” she said.

The events, which usually include cookouts and games, will look different this year — depending on the neighborhood. Some have chosen to hold it virtually, while others, like in Campus Hills, are putting on a pared down version of what they’ve done in previous years.

Instead of food vendors, Woods said bottled water and chips will be served at the gathering planned before sundown on Seaword Road, and those who attend are asked to wear masks. Towson Precinct officers and Baltimore County Fire Department personnel, with a fire engine and medic unit in tow, have been invited.

But Warehime said community associations have gotten creative with changing up their plans. In Campus Hills, children will be able to go on a “first responders scavenger hunt” that encourages them to ask officers and firefighters questions

“Both the fire and police do such an outstanding job,” said Woods, a member of the Campus Hills Citizens on Patrol.

In the southwestern part of the county, Honaker said Catonsville Manor Community Association’s National Night Out won’t look much different than it has previously. She’s scheduled a marching band and dancers and vendors who will serve hot dogs and sell candy and personal safety items like pepper spray.

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“We do it every year; this is a big thing for us,” she said. This will be the tenth year the Catonsville Manor community has organized such an event.

The only real difference is “We’re going to be doing masks, of course,” she said.

Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt will be making appearances at the events organized for the Campus Hills and Catonsville Manor communities.

“Although National Night Out is in October this year and the pandemic has changed the event for us all, this is still a great opportunity to engage with residents and neighbors in the communities that we serve,” Hyatt said in a statement. “Tonight is about building partnerships and celebrating our work together to promote safer communities.”

“We’re hoping to get the crowd out to let 'em know we care,” Honaker said.

Woods, who also directs the Baltimore County Police and Community Relations Council, said the community has a positive relationship with its police, said the crime rate in the Campus Hills neighborhood “is pretty low,” and he attributes that to the officers who “keep things under control in Towson.”

Crime rates have decreased almost across the board, save for thefts from vehicles, in Baltimore County in 2020 as people have largely been sequestered to their homes.

He added that he was galvanized to hold the event despite the pandemic because of the civil unrest that broke out across the U.S. after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police. This incident has increased public scrutiny on police departments — including in Baltimore County, where the County Council on Monday passed a bill banning chokeholds, a practice police say is not taught in police training.

“The protests against the police has certainly made me think we need to thank the police more than ever for what they’re doing,” Woods said. “That’s one of the reasons I really wanted to have this. We always want to thank the police who are risking their lives every day to keep us safe.”

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