"Ooh, a pool!"
The splashing and giggling of small children in a backyard pool on a hot, August, National Night Out -- the buzz of their parents' conversation and laughter: these are sounds of a family neighborhood echoing down a street in the southeastern city of Alexandria, Virginia. And this is happening at night.
That's the point of National Night Out: organizers say it sends a message to criminals who might be looking for trouble after dark to stay out. The event also encourages neighbors to develop a sense of community -- to keep bad guys away all the time, day or night.
The party hosted by several city residents was attended by a handful of Alexandria police officers, including Sergeant Ben Bolton. The 18-year veteran of law enforcement sized up the city neighborhoods: "This is a very transient area. People don't tend to stay very long in one place and get to know their neighbors. I've gotten calls and asked someone, 'Have you checked with your neighbors?' They'll say, 'I don't really know them.' 'How long have you lived here?' 'Six years' You'd think in six years, you'd know your neighbors, but not always. So it gives people a chance to meet the new people, the established people. The more people who are aware of who's in the neighborhood and who's not, who belongs and who doesn't, then we [the police] can take action against people who don't belong."
An estimated 34 million Americans take part in the National Night Out, which has been held in early August since 1984 -- organized by a non-profit, grassroots group called the National Association of Town Watch. Matt Peskin,the group's spokesman, said the event has been growing year by year. "In the early days, it was very symbolic - front porch lights on, front porch vigil -- that was about it. People liked that - the unity part of it, that '99 percent of us are law-abiding, that we're all out [one night] showing our support for fighting crime.' So from that, people got tired of sitting on their front porches and it ultimately expanded into the block parties, the cookouts, the parades, and all the activities you see today."
Peskin says the National Night Out hearkens back to an earlier era. "If you look back at the 1940's and fifties, neighborhood were safer places because people routinely looked out for each other. Everybody knew the cop on the beat. You could let your kids out till nine or ten o'clock [at night]. But strangers weren't allowed in neighborhoods because everyone knew each other was, and a stranger wouldn't make it."
Alexandria councilwoman Del Pepper (in the far right of the group photo) says she's seen how the annual event has helped the city fight crime, and deterred criminals from preying on some neighborhoods. "There are certain neighborhoods where we have done this before, where they have been on the streets and we'll have cookouts on the very streets where they hang out and sell drugs. For at least that night, they can not be there. We have gradually taken over. This city is relatively drug free and crime-free to the extent an urban city can be."
Still, some of the older children at the Alexandria party shared their fears about crime. "There's always that -- like -- thing in the back of your mind that you see on the news and stuff -- like -- people breaking in and stuff and hurting kids. Like, I worry about that, too," said one 12-year old girl. Adds her friend, "When I'm at my house alone, I get really nervous."
One of the parents at the party said he wants more National Nights Out: "...more events like this, exposure on the neighborhood."
At least for one hot summer night -- when most people would prefer the comfort of their air-conditioned homes - residents of this suburban neighborhood prefer to take a stand against crime. Amid family, friends and neighbors, and the reassuring presence of local police officers, this neighborhood is determined to stay crime-free after dark, not just this night but every night.