FAIRFAX COUNTY, VIRGINIA —
At a housing community in Fairfax Country, Virginia, a little boy shyly approaches police officer Anthony Patalena and extends his hand.
"Thank you for helping us," the boy says as the officer shakes his hand and smiles.
Here, at the Grove at Huntley Meadows, residents have gathered in front of the pool house for ice cream — and to get to know each other better to help keep the neighborhood safe.
National Night Out is an annual event on the first Tuesday in August to help deter crime. Across the United States, millions of people in thousands of communities gather for block parties, cookouts, and other events to promote partnerships between neighborhoods and the police.
Often the police stop by, like Patalena and Officer Tyler Timberlake, who both patrol Fairfax County neighborhoods by bike. Timberlake says he thinks National Night Out is great because he can help people with their safety concerns and it "humanizes us with the kids."
Patalena agrees, and hands out silver paper stick-on "junior officer" badges for the children to wear.
Kenyatta Williams, whose son got a badge and the chance to sit behind the wheel of a police car, says she likes that National Night Out "lets the kids talk to the cops because they normally don't get to do that."
"Most of the time when someone meets a police officer, it is under negative circumstances like a burglary, fire or traffic citation," says Matt Peskin, who started National Night Out 32 years ago. "You're meeting officers under positive circumstances, and that rapport is very important in terms of crime prevention and neighborhood safety."
Peskin, who also is the founder and president of the National Association of Town Watch, says he got the idea when he was writing his community's neighborhood watch newsletter.
During the 1980s, Peskin explains, residential crime increased — especially home break-ins — because more people went to work, leaving their houses empty. The mentality at the time, he says, was for "people to lock themselves behind closed doors, instead of finding ways to deter crime under a unified community."
National Night Out began simply with neighbors turning on their porch lights and sitting in front of their homes.
Melissa Allen, who came to the ice cream social with her husband and two small boys, likes that "the community comes together to watch out for one another," and that "it's a way of showing her children that they don't have to be afraid of the police."
Resident Gary Kosciusko adds that it gave him the opportunity to talk with the police about gang-related graffiti near the neighborhood.
"Hopefully we can have that removed," he says, "so it will deter gang activity in this area."
Some police stations were taking additional measures to protect their officers, after the shootings of cops in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas.
Robert Urps, the crime prevention officer at Fairfax County's Mount Vernon station, said even though he didn't expect anything to happen in either safe or crime-ridden neighborhoods, two police officers instead of one were being put in a car for National Night Out, "just for their safety."