First responders representing nearly every Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta County police, fire and rescue agency came out in force Tuesday night as they made their annual trip to the city for National Night Out.
They filled the the Target parking lot at the Waynesboro Town Center with cruisers, firetrucks and other pieces of firefighting, rescue and police equipment, answering questions and talking with as many people in the community as they could. Police K-9 units, an AirCare medevac helicopter landing nearby, a police-controlled robot and plenty of T-shirts, balloons, mugs, frisbees and other freebies entertained and delighted the younger visitors, many still in strollers.
But the night has a serious message.
The goal of the annual community-building campaign is to build relationships that create “better, safer neighborhoods,” said Waynesboro Police Sgt. Fred Smith, who has coordinated the event the past two years.
“If you know an officer, it’s a whole lot easier to pick up that phone,” Smith said. The event gives folks a chance to “ask us a lot of questions. We can fill in a lot of blanks people have.”
Officers and emergency personnel around the country have been holding National Night Out events for 36 years. Waynesboro and Staunton police departments, Augusta County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies, including Animal Control, co-host the local event, the only one held each year in the three jurisdictions. Nonprofits, businesses, health care and service agencies also turn out to make the night a success.
The annual get-together has grown considerably since the WPD’s Capt. Kelly Walker teamed up with his Augusta and Staunton counterparts in the early 1990s to start the local Night Out. At first, Walker said, the event was held at the former trucking company that is now the Augusta County Government Center in Verona.
“We held it on the loading dock. It was crowded but well-attended,” he said.
After holding Night Out at the Staunton Mall for a number of years, organizers moved it to the Waynesboro Target about eight years ago.
Smith said that with changes in technology, society and in the number of calls police receive, the old idea of an officer patrolling neighborhoods on foot gave way to cruisers long ago. But that also has led to fewer positive interactions between cops and residents in some communities.
“Years ago officers walked a beat,” Smith said. “We can’t do that anymore.”
National Night Out is one way of trying to break down those barriers.
Walker said Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta County officers believe they have the support and trust of the communities they serve, but community outreach programs like Night Out are still important.
“Those bridges still need to be built. ... [It’s] important to reinforce the unity of purpose we have here,” he said. “A kid we meet here and high-five, who knows how that kid is affected down the line.”
That sentiment was echoed by a number of parents with young children in tow, including John Randolph of Waynesboro who came with his 5-year-old son, Hunter.
“I want him to get used to police officers and know that they are good,” Randolph said of Hunter, who earlier in the day attended his first day of kindergarten. “I want him to know to go to them if he has an issue and not away from them.”
Linda and Mike Nesselrodt, also of Waynesboro, came to Night Out for the first time. Taking it all in from the comfort of his stroller was their son, Rutledge, who is almost 2 years old.
“It’s never too early to see the cops and build that relationship,” Mike Nesselrodt said.
The planning for this year’s event did have a little bit of a wrinkle, Smith noted. Waynesboro City Schools modified the division’s school calendar for 2019-20, with classes starting Tuesday.
If the national event does not reschedule from the first week of August, Smith said, local Night Out activities will probably be moved so there is no conflict with the beginning of school.