The community enjoys activities including moonbounce, music, and free backpacks at the Southern Park Heights National Night Out. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)
Dozens of children wandered around a Park Heights parking lot Tuesday afternoon, their faces painted, carrying colorful balloon animals and snowballs in plastic foam cups.
In February, two men had been fatally shot nearby in separate incidents, adding to the more than 200 homicides Baltimore has endured this year. So the National Night Out event on Tuesday afternoon, one of many across the city and state and part of a nationwide movement, seemed even more relevant this year.
"There's still room for work, so we try to talk to the kids," said Joanne Mack, second vice president of of the Baltimore alumni chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, the sponsor of the Park Heights event. "There is a lot of crime, a lot of violence here in Baltimore, but then there's a lot of unemployment here, food deserts here, but we don't want to talk about that, we want to talk about how they're killing everybody. It's some other kind of systemic things going on."
The National Night Out event is intended to help improve relations between police and the community, and it was celebrated in 50 events across Baltimore City with games, food and other festivities. Dozens of events were also held in the Baltimore suburbs, including Towson, Havre de Grace, Ellicott City and Annapolis.
The event came as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech Tuesday to the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives that the high homicide rates in Baltimore and Chicago have turned the cities into "killing fields."
Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, who hugged supporters and posed for pictures with children at the Park Heights event, declined to comment on Sessions' remarks, quoting former first lady Michelle Obama: "When they go low, we go high."
Mosby said it was important that the community feel a part of efforts to reduce violence.
"I think this is a really great display of what Baltimore City is all about: It's about community, it's taking a national sort of stand against violence in a city where we've been plagued by a very small number of individuals that define a negative perception of our city," she said. "It's important for us as a community to realize that there's more of us than there are of those individuals."
Brittanese Dobyns, 28, stood with her 4-year-old son, Bryce Epperson, by a moonbounce at the Park Heights event. Dobyns said she received a free backpack full of school supplies for Bryce, who is set to start prekindergarten in the fall.
"I love when they give back to the community it's an excellent opportunity for the lower-income people," she said. "It's important because you get to know the people in your community, you get to connect with everyone. It's a good way for the children to meet and greet before school starts."
Ottis Johnson, a pastor at Garden of Prayer Christian Church in West Baltimore, loaded ice into a machine to make snowballs.
National Night Out, he said, teaches children "that Baltimore is not just all bad. We do have a lot of wonderful, excellent people here in this city. We want our kids to be able to see that and recognize that they do have role models that they can look up to."
At Patriot Plaza in Towson, about 100 people gathered to hear Baltimore County Police Capt. Jay Landsman speak about fighting crime in Towson while they enjoyed free pizza, chicken nuggets, shaved ice, and meet-and-greets with police."It's been a tough week in Towson, but our detectives and officers are working around the clock to deal with a spike of burglaries," Landsman said.
Towson's police commander stressed the importance of locking doors, windows and cars to prevent crime while referring to a series of more than 25 break-ins over the weekend in the neighborhood of Rodgers Forge that police believe may be related. "National Night Out is a time to reaffirm our commitment to public safety," Landsman said.
Havre de Grace police officers and city officials met with residents of the Somerset Manor community and later with residents of the Ontario-Otsego neighborhood.
"We think that our community has seen, over the past six years, a huge improvement in safety and that is because of the relationship with the Police Department," Nicki Biggs, executive director of the Havre de Grace Housing Authority, said of Somerset Manor.
Police officials meet with residents on a monthly basis to discuss any concerns, partner with the community on a neighborhood watch and attend community events, according to Biggs.
The rain stopped just in time in Ellicott City on Tuesday night for officers to chat and play games with residents in the city's historic district.
Katie McGowan brought her two children with her to check out the events, and said she was pleased by the friendly presence of public safety officers. McGowan, who lives in Ellicott City, said she initially wanted to attend to show her 3-year-old son the police and fire vehicles present, but also enjoyed being able to interact with the officers.
"It's essential [for them] to interact with the community [and] put faces on rescue personnel," McGowan said. "It can't do anything but good."