National Night Out: 'It's a vital step in crime prevention and safety'

National Night Out: 'It's a vital step in crime prevention and safety' »Play Video
Kids in Happy Valley get an up close look at the inside of a police car during National Night Out on Tuesday, August 7, 2012. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, Producer/Reporter.

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PORTLAND, Ore. - Neighborhood residents across the nation got together Tuesday evening for the 29th annual National Night Out.

And while there were plenty of hamburgers and hot dogs to go around, the real goal was to strengthen community spirit and send a message to criminals that neighborhoods are organized and will fight back.

"It's by getting connected that they have a safer neighborhood, a more livable neighborhood and a more enjoyable neighborhood," said Celeste Carey, Crime Prevention Coordinator for the City of Portland, who was at the National Night Out party at Fernhill Park in Northeast Portland.

"It's a vital step in crime prevention and safety - knowing your neighbors and being in tune with your neighborhood," said Katie Ugolini with the Concordia Neighborhood Association, who was also at Fernhill Park.

"I think it's an excellent way to meet the community members," said Happy Valley resident Heidi Steen, who attended a National Night Out party in her neighborhood. "To know the police, the firemen and the council members - and talk and get comfortable and get to know our neighbors."

And what about the kids?

"They love it," Steen said. "They love the firemen who come and do demonstrations and let them go through everything. I think it really helps the kids be comfortable with emergency personnel."

Vancouver resident Cynthia Powers organized a barbecue on her street and for her, National Night Out had a special meaning.

You see, she and her neighbors have been fighting gang vandalism at a nearby park called 'My Park,' which Powers helped create. Just two weeks ago, graffiti was everywhere at the park.

"It was just horrible," she said. "I wanted to cry when I saw it. I was like why would you want to do that? Because it is my park and their park. I named it that specifically so people could say it's 'my park.' "

Powers and her neighbors have worked with city leaders to clean up most of the graffiti and they are hoping it stays that way. 

Vancouver Residents Fight Back Against Vandalism

About National Night Out

Block parties, cookouts, safety fairs and much more are all part of the annual get together, which draws millions of people out of their homes to meet their neighbors and learn how to prevent crime where they live.  Last year over 15,000 communities participated, according to organizers.

Portland's Crime Prevention Program Manager, Stephanie Reynolds, recently joined us on AM Northwest to talk about National Night Out. She stressed the importance of knowing your neighbors, especially in a day and age where that is not necessarily the norm.

"American culture has changed," she said. "It used to be that people would live in the same house for decades, potentially their entire life. And they would really know their neighbors very well. I think we're a little bit more mobile as a society right now and people don't know their neighbors well, so we're not as familiar with the normal patterns of life on a street. We may not notice when something is going wrong. When neighbors know each other and understand each other's patterns and care about each other, they are better able to look out for each other and call the police if something is wrong."

The event began back in 1984. Matt A. Peskin, who is the Executive Director of the National Association of Town Watch (NATW), came up with the idea. He wanted local crime prevention agencies and organizations to meet with folks in the community and get people involved. That first year, 400 communities in 23 states took part and the numbers have been growing ever since.

"While the one night is certainly not an answer to crime, drugs and violence, National Night Out does represent the kind of spirit, energy and determination that is helping to make many neighborhoods safer places throughout the year," Peskin said in a press release that outlined the organization's history. "It is a night to celebrate safety and crime prevention successes - and to expand and strengthen programs for the next 364 days."

KATU Meteorologist Dave Salesky and KATU Reporter Lincoln Graves contributed to this report.