National Night Out forges connection between public safety and community

National Night Out 2017 was a big draw in Manchester on Tuesday evening, the grassy lot of the carnival grounds were halfway filled with cars by a quarter after 6 p.m., a serious crowd of people under blue skies broken only by wispy high clouds, the smell of hot dogs and the occasional balloon.

The balloons were free for children, as were snow cones; and chances to sit in fire and salt trucks, and to use a fire hose to put out a fake house fire. The Army National Guard brought a rock-climbing wall tall enough to grant a real view to those without a fear of heights.


"Between putting out the fake house fire and climbing the rock wall," an announcer said over the public address system, "your kids will have a blast."

The almost carnival-like atmosphere is by design, said Manchester Chief of Police John Hess, who first brought National Night Out to Manchester four years ago. "Manchester for whatever reason never really engaged in the National Night Out concept and when I came in as chief, I talked to the town manager and council, and brought it together," he said. "Ever since it's been growing."

National Night Out has its origins in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the early 1980s, and had more of a focus on resisting violent crime and community members partnering with police to help "take back the streets" Hess said.

"It's not just about the police anymore — you have your firefighters, you have your paramedics," he said. "For the town of Manchester, we include the Department of Public Works because they are out there when it's snowing, clearing the streets. They are our first responders; they are helping the community. We want the community to meet them."

That's a key virtue of the National Night Out program, according to Carroll County State's Attorney Brian DeLeonardo, who had just arrived to the Manchester event after a visit to another in Hampstead. Carroll County is lucky to have good relationships between its communities and law enforcement, he said, and events like National Night Out, where children can meet police and other public safety officers, helps keep it that way.

"We are able to have those moments of bonding in a way that's not in a traffic stop. That makes a difference," DeLeonardo said. "You bring the kids out and let them see, everybody is people."

Ken Schneider, of Manchester, agreed. His 9-year-old daughter, Brooke, may have most enjoyed walking the balance beam and was waiting for a chance to put out the fake fire, but Schneider believes it's important she know of police and firefighters that "these are the good guys."

"These are the people you can trust in the community," he said. "Get the community to understand all those types of folks are doing the tough work out there."

Manchester and Hampstead were not the only Carroll communities to hold a National Night Out Event. DeLeonardo left Manchester to head to Taneytown, and had members of his office in locations all across the county, including Eldersburg, Sykesville and New Windsor.

Westminster held National Night Out events in six different locations around the city, including Dutterer's Park, where a festive mood reigned even as the event was winding down just after 8 p.m. The Westminster fire company brought out a fire hose; adjusted it to put out a broad, soft spray; and let children run through it— slipping and sliding on the slick, green turf.

Behind them, McGruff the Crime Dog danced to salsa music.

"It was a lot of fun. It made my day a lot better," said Alexandria Warren, 15, of New Windsor, who had just finished enjoying the impromptu fire hose slip and slide. She had come to the event while her 9-year-old brother, Zachary Craft, had football practice at the nearby athletic fields.

That National Night Out provided a chance to cool off, and interaction with interesting people, was a bonus.

"I thought it was great. I loved all the different vendors that came out," said Lesa Craft, Zachary and Alexandria's mother. "You had the police, the fire department and Habitat for Humanity, which is awesome."


Lt. Kim Darby of the Westminster fire company said the turnout was great and that she was able to really show a lot of children the fire engine and firefighter gear.

"We don't want them to be afraid of us," she said. "If I am dressed up in my turnout gear, I am going to look kind of funny. … If we're coming at you with something like this, you need to come toward us."

It's the sort of education Darby enjoys doing and for which National Night Out is well suited.

"I think this is a great thing," she said. "I think it needs to be done more, maybe more than once a year."