Southwest Virginia police departments celebrate National Night Out

The annual event is a way to build community between officers and locals

VINTON, Va. – All across the country and here at home, many police officers spent Tuesday night with members of the community. It's part of National Night Out, a nationwide push to curb crime and build relationships between officers and the people they serve.

This year is the 35th anniversary of the event. It's a chance for police to build the community around them in hopes of getting help down the road. At a time when there are sometimes tensions between neighbors and police, some say it's become more important than ever.

As the band made up of some law enforcement officers plucked on, people in Vinton enjoyed the Tuesday sun. With hot dogs in one hand and sno-cones in the other, there were smiles all around for Vinton police officers and the people they serve.

"They're here to help us and I think people need to respect our officers and give them the benefit of the doubt," Vinton Citizens Police Academy Director Shirley Patsel said.

In addition to small talk, National Night Out is an opportunity for meaningful conversations.

"You get pulled aside every now and then and they say, 'I've got this issue in my neighborhood,'" Vinton Police Department Chief Tom Foster said. "And it's a good opportunity, sometimes we can't talk it all the way through in a venue like this but we can always get a name and a number and contact them later."

These types of interactions aren't always the reality in today's world. But Vinton police said they've been lucky, able to stay out of that drama, largely because of events like this one.

"Our community is very comfortable coming to the police and sharing the problems with us and that allows us to focus on them and address them," Foster said. "And it seems to be working really well."

A number of departments across Southwest Virginia participated, including Roanoke City, Lynchburg and Blacksburg. People said having this kind of fun for just one night makes a year's worth of difference.

"I really enjoy it and I praise them because they're some of the best officers you'll ever come across," Patsel said.

It's estimated nearly 40 million people participate in National Night Out across the country. That's up from just over 1 million when the event started in the 1980s.

About the Author: