Law enforcement agencies across the country are using an event set for Tuesday to try to build back relationship and communication bridges between police and the public that may have weakened over the past few years.
The Hernando Police Department sees the annual National Night Out set for Conger Park on Tuesday as a means of offering the public a fun evening while making stronger connections with the city.
Between 5:30 p.m. and sunset, officers will be providing food, games, and other activities for the community to enjoy. The evening will be climaxed by a fireworks display to enjoy for those attending the activity.
At the same time, Police Chief Scott Worsham hopes residents and officers can start talking with each other in a casual atmosphere that doesn’t include tickets being written or handguns being drawn.
Worsham said he sees Tuesday night’s event as a proactive policing activity.
“I’ve been involved in National Night Out for the last several years,” Worsham said. “I had always seen that it was such a positive for the community, It puts the police department and its citizens in a relaxed setting to just socialize and get to know one another.”
Hernando Police Sgt. John Cotter has been planning Tuesday’s National Night Out event. He said beyond free food and games, people get to meet officers and learn that there’s another side to those the public sees on a daily basis “behind the badge.”
“Most often, when people encounter the police, they are not having a good day, they’re kind of at their worst,” Cotter said. “This really works to combat that and establish a better sense of community between first responders and the public at large. There’s no agenda or anything. If you want to speak to the officers, if things come up and you have a concern, opinion, or even talk about sports if you want, you can.”
Hernando had never done a National Night Out before, Worsham said, until last year when about 500 residents from across the community came out to the park. It went so well, Worsham said, the national Town Watch organization recognized what the department had done.
“Last year we were voted ‘Rookie of the Year’ across the country for everything that we did,” Worsham noted. “Our hope is that every year we will improve on what we did the year before. We’re bringing the entire community together, not just one section of the city, not just one ethnicity group, it’s an all-around community event.” Cotter detailed some of the activities that are planned Tuesday night.
“We have things like a bounce house coming again this year,” Cotter said. “We have a small billboard for the children to paint on and it will become the official billboard of the year for the Hernando National Out. Dr. Jason Coleman has provided a fireworks display as the sun goes down. The animal shelter is also going to be there for a small adoption if someone, while they are there, may want to adopt an animal.
Cotter said fingerprinting for children to have on ID cards will also be done and a children’s bicycle is being raffled off.
Given events of the past several years in other parts of the nation where officers have been targeted for harm by others, Worsham believes it is important to foster a good relationship with the public. He calls events like Tuesday’s Hernando Night Out part of his “positive, proactive policing.”
“For law enforcement in general the past 4-5 years, it’s been rough,” said Worsham. “Our numbers for officer deaths have been higher than they’ve ever been. We’re seeing targeted violence specifically towards police officers. Nationally, there’s a perception of things that have happened and an event like this is critical to the need of trying to connect with our community.”
National Association of Town Watch (NATW), encourages National Night Out on the first Tuesday in August across the country. Texas and Florida have the option to use the alternate date of the first Tuesday in October to avoid hot weather.
While Tuesday is only the second year for Hernando to hold the event, NATW has promoted it since 1984.
Bob Bakken is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.