For the first time in a decade, the Palo Alto Police Department helped organize National Night Out, an annual nationwide campaign that promotes police-community relationships and neighborhood camaraderie. The event took place on Tuesday evening at 12 different locations in the city.
One hosted outside the police station at 275 Forest Ave. allowed children to explore the inside of a Palo Alto emergency service vehicle and a fire truck. They also got an up-close view of the city's Mobile Emergency Operations Center, a police car and a K-9 vehicle parked on the street. Meanwhile, older residents learned the ins and outs of working in law enforcement from police officers and socialized while eating free popcorn and pizza.
The 11 other resident-sponsored gatherings featured special activities like karaoke and ice cream socials.
Police Chief Robert Jonsen traveled with an assistant chief, patrol captain and new traffic team to the dozen gatherings.
Fostering positive interactions between community members and police officers was a major objective for the event according to police spokesman Capt. Zach Perron.
"The vast majority of times when people come into contact with police, it's because they've been arrested, are a crime victim, have been accused of committing a crime, witnessed a crime, got into an accident or they got a ticket," Perron said.
"None of those are really starting off a relationship in a positive way."
The hiring of a new public affairs manager and Jonsen this year spurred the return of National Night Out, he added.
While the atmosphere at the police-department-hosted event was fun and informal through activities such as Plinko games and a giveaway, some residents were still able to discuss more serious issues with police officers. Perron said that he talked to people about the challenges in recruiting new police officers, Friday's shooting outside the Safeway in Midtown and crime trends.
However, new resident Aisha Dozie did not seek weighty conversations with police officers. Instead, having moved from Nigeria to Palo Alto eight months ago, she wanted to show her two sons, Ikenna and Kaito, that they can trust the police force in their new home.
"When he (her son) saw the ambulance, he said, 'Oh, someone must be sick or dead,' and I said, 'No, ambulances aren't always associated with negative things,'" Dozie said. "If they (my sons) feel police are friendly and approachable, then they will feel comfortable telling them about a problem as opposed to feeling like they're people who are only going after bad guys."
Dozie said she had her sons shook hands with five officers whom they met and applauded their friendliness and professionalism.
Perron was also happy to see so many children in attendance.
"If we have a chance to make a positive impact on a young kid, that's going to help shape their perception of law enforcement later in life," he said. He added that some residents have already suggested that they add a bounce house to next year's event.
Resident Maura Dell also visited the event, mainly for her 3-year-old daughter, Layla, who was especially interested in the fire trucks and meeting Balko, the police department's trained canine.
When asked by her mother what her favorite part of the event was, Layla happily shouted, "doggie!"
Nick Enberg, a police officer and Balko's caretaker, said that he was thrilled to see so many people take an interest in his four-legged companion.
"Police dogs have a stigma of being scary, but through events like this people can see that they're not as scary as they may think they are," he said. "They're meant to be sweet, social and multipurpose. They don't differentiate between people, and they're unilaterally happy-go-lucky."
At the National Night Out event at the Opportunity Center at 33 Encina Ave., attendees mingled with each other and sang karaoke songs including Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" and Beyonce's "Single Ladies" with two visiting police officers.
Dozens of burgers, hot dogs, mini donuts and Twizzlers were arranged on tables and the 20 people, mostly residents at the affordable-housing complex and drop-in service center, made the environment more intimate.
Resident Alacia Hafner brought her 2-year-old daughter to meet her neighbors.
"Us neighbors, we are like family. We don't have to be blood to be family," she said. "We use events like this to come out, talk, have fun, laugh."
She also recognized the significance of being able to see and meet police officers face to face.
"Not everyone wants to deal with the police, but when you have a relationship or you know and trust one officer, you can call dispatch and ask for that person's name, which is more comfortable," she said.
Opportunity Center resident coordinator Rebekah Dennison, who helped organize the event at the complex's garden, said that it was important for places like the center, which serves low-income residents, to participate in a citywide event like National Night Out.
"A lot of people view the OC as a place where only homeless live and they think that low income is a bad thing, when in fact a lot of are residents are hard-working citizens -- they just don't make enough for this area," Dennison said. "We want to show that we're part of the Palo Alto community."
The East Palo Alto Police Department also organized National Night Out events at nine locations, a majority of which were hosted by residents who focused on building their neighborhood camaraderie and crime prevention.