Last Tuesday, police were out in full-force across America.
But not for a bad reason.
It was National Night Out, a countrywide event where police host get-togethers with the communities they serve in an effort to build relationships and camaraderie with those they are sworn to protect.
While the lasting impacts of National Night Out locally can be difficult to quantify using statistics, some local police chiefs say anecdotes and attendance numbers show the community is joining hands with authorities more than before.
“We can’t do this job alone,” said James City County Police Chief Brad Rinehimer. “Continuing to be involved, that’s what makes this community what it is. People see there’s a lot more to us than writing tickets and arresting people.”
Because national conversations sometimes turn grave when it comes to police, building strong avenues for communication with the community is especially important for police, he added.
National Night Out, and other community programs like Coffee With a Cop, aid police in that effort, even if the impact can be tough to quantify.
“I come from the North and the suburbs in New Jersey,” said city resident Vivian Prescott, 73. “You have the police there, but you don’t have the community like you do in Williamsburg.”
In Williamsburg and James City County, the respective police departments do National Night Out a little bit differently.
James City County Police have been participating in National Night Out for at least two decades. Instead of organizing the event in one location, officers go out in three or four groups to neighborhoods that sign up.
“I just like the idea — and I think we get more contact — when we go out into the neighborhoods,” Rinehimer said. Neighborhood organizers can also choose how they celebrate the evening, whether it be with snow cone machines, live music, bounce houses, or a simple chat with the police.
This year, about 50 officers were out Tuesday night in local communities, and 20 neighborhoods participated. Officers handed out coloring and other supplies to children, gave informational materials to residents about various programs offered by police and interacted with residents.
Rinehimer said he gauges the success of National Night Out by anecdotal interactions with residents. On Tuesday, some residents approached the chief about crime issues.
He also gauges success by community response to him and his officers throughout the year. A national conversation is constantly running about violence involving police officers — both because of and against officers — but the community generally responds with support, he said.
“After some of those high-profile incidents, like the Dallas shooting of police officers, there were citizens bringing us food just to show their appreciation,” Rinehimer said, adding that he’s seen the department receive more support in recent years.
Williamsburg Police have always had National Night out on the lawn of the Community Building on North Boundary Street, but an expected increase in attendance led organizers to relocate to a large lawn at the Shops at High Street, away from downtown.
Attendance, in part thanks to a more visible venue, shot up from about 400 people in 2018 to more than 600 in 2019, Williamsburg Police Chief Sean Dunn said. A final count had not been completed as of Thursday.
That increase alone shows the community wants to get to know their local officers. More than half the police force, between 20 and 25 officers — many of whom were off-duty — came to the event.
“In some communities, law enforcement only meets their citizens when there’s a problem or crisis,” Dunn said. “That’s a disservice … we want as many opportunities to engage with them as possible.”
City spokeswoman Lee Ann Hartmann said there were 1,080 hot dogs and hamburgers cooked, and 80 bicycle helmets were given away by Bike Walk Williamsburg. Thirty-three local businesses also participated in the event.
“Smiles too numerous to count,” she added.
For Prescott, National Night Out isn’t only about having an event for the community; it’s also about race relations.
Prescott has been a “citizen member” of the Williamsburg’s National Night Out organizing committee for five years now.
As a person of color, Prescott said she hopes events like National Night Out can help improve the relationships between people of color and the police — especially with the ever-present national conversations about police brutality and officer-involved incidents with people of color, particularly blacks.
Part of community policing requires authorities to appear “approachable,” she said. This year, a Williamsburg officer attended events carrying his baby in his arms. For Prescott, that made him appear much more “humanistic.”
“I want to show them, [police] are not the foe,” Prescott said. “They want to go home to their families just like the rest of us.