The parking lot of Bel Air's Target store was even busier than usual Tuesday evening, as a roped-off area was filled with music, law enforcement vehicles, motorcycles, a fire truck and a dunking booth.
The event was part of the widespread National Night Out, gatherings to promote community safety and better relationships with police. Target has previously sponsored the event at its Abingdon store, but this year the corporation held it in Bel Air.
Target brought in food and activities for children, while agencies including the Harford County Sheriff's Office, Maryland State Police, Bel Air Police Department and Bel Air Volunteer Fire Department brought in vehicles, demonstrations and even a rescue boat to show the public.
"It's just a good time for the police to be with the community outside of all the other reasons we're there. We're not there investigating a crash or someone that's been hurt in a fight or for a domestic reason. We're here just to get together and have a good time on a nice, hot August night," Maryland State Police Lt. Timothy Mullin, commander of the Bel Air Barrack, said.
"The kids can talk to a police officer, and there are children out there that have never spoken to a police officer before, and when they're encountered with it, there are children that are scared, and for them to be able to speak to police, troopers, it kind of breaks that ice, so, in the future, where, for whatever reason they encounter police or they need to go to a police officer, that ice has been broken and they feel more comfortable doing so," Mullin said.
Children and families snapped up plastic fire helmets, threw balls at a dunking booth, checked out the Sheriff's Office informational van, got to sit in a motorcycle or fire truck, hugged a police dog and chatted with law enforcement officials.
Mullin called it "kind of just a casual event where police departments throughout the county, fire, EMS, we can all get together and just intermingle, socialize, with the community, and we have some static displays, some things for the kids to see, some giveaways."
The event is a good way to have fellowship with the community, and lets police "befriend the little boys and girls and show them that cops are nice people," Bel Air Police Chief Charles Moore said, and Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Col. Steven Bodway called it "a team effort."
Bodway noted residents are no longer using the event to threaten children that the police will take them to jail if they're not good. Instead, he said, the community has gotten better at seeing police more as partners in public safety.
Target is "fantastic" in supporting the event and providing resources, Moore said.