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Police work to improve dialogue with community at annual event

New police chief wants to renew emphasis on community oriented policing

Posted: August 7, 2013 - 9:08pm  |  Updated: August 8, 2013 - 12:08am
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Juneau Police Officer Steve Warnaca and McGruff the Crime Dog talk with Callen Walker, 3, at a block party during National Night Out on Tuesday.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Juneau Police Officer Steve Warnaca and McGruff the Crime Dog talk with Callen Walker, 3, at a block party during National Night Out on Tuesday.

A police records clerk costumed as McGruff the Crime Dog greeted kids who were drawn out of their Mendenhall Valley homes Tuesday evening by the siren calls of police vehicles and fire trucks, a sound as alluring to a child as an ice cream truck’s familiar tune.

There was no emergency, or crime that brought first responders to Parkwood Drive. It was a block party where police handed out balloons, bracelets and toys to kids as firefighters let them clamber up into the engine’s driver’s seat.

“I almost can reach the pedals,” one girl proudly told her mother, 40-year-old Paula Casperson.

Parkwood was one of 10 neighborhoods participating in this year’s National Night Out event, perhaps better known as America’s Night Out Against Crime. The Juneau Police Department has facilitated the event for the past six years to promote crime prevention.

Police officers, firefighters and members of the U.S. Coast Guard broke up into teams at the JPD station earlier in the evening, and then attended all the block parties for about 15 to 20 minutes each.

Lt. David Campbell said the purpose was twofold: to allow the neighbors to mingle amongst themselves and to foster positive interactions between law enforcement and community members.

“If something unusual happens, it sticks out for them and they know who their neighbors are, and if it does happen, they’re more comfortable calling the right people whether it’s the fire department, police or whoever,” Campbell said. “That’s the purpose of the whole thing.”

Police Chief Bryce Johnson, who took over for retiring chief Greg Browning earlier this summer, said National Night Out also meshes with the community-oriented policing model on which he says he wants to put a renewed emphasis.

“We can play a part in controlling crime, but it takes an entire community effort, and we therefore partner with the community in order to make that difference,” he said.

Interacting with community members one-on-one also helps ensure police are in tune with the neighborhood’s specific needs and what residents perceive as problems, whether it be speeding or drug issues, he said.

“It gets people thinking about crime,” he said of National Night Out. “It’s the one night where we try to bring people out and think about kind of the issues and it serves as a dialogue.”

City employee Rachel Stauffer, 38, organized the block party on Glacierwood Drive for the second year in a row. She said the event is a great way to get to know who her neighbors are.

“You just get to know people, and then when you need something, you know who to go to,” she said. “And also, it’s really great because when everybody walks by you feel comfortable saying hi and how’s it going.”

She said National Night Out inspired her last year to create an email listserv for the entire block. They use it to communicate about everything, from bears in the area to informing each other when they are on vacation to alerting one another to suspicious activity.

“I just figured I wanted to be able to contact all my neighbors when I need to,” she said.

Anne Weske, a 32-year-old mother of two and wife of JPD officer Jeremy Weske, attended the Parkwood block party across from her house. She said the event gets neighbors talking about crime in their area. She said the crime is not bad on their block, which is home to several JPD officers and law enforcement members, but that they are still not immune to petty theft.

“It doesn’t stop the car riflings, though, for sure,” she said. “That happens. We’re no different from any other neighborhood.”

National Night Out “definitely opens up communication between the neighbors,” she said.

“It just kind of brings everyone out,” she said. “People start talking about those kinds of things, like petty crime, but we try to keep it light and just have fun with each other.”

Another resident of Parkwood, 31-year-old father of two Casey Walker, said he brought his two kids, ages 3 and 9, out after hearing the sirens.

“I think it’s cool,” he said. “I never had this kind of stuff growing up here when I was a kid. You were always scared of them, you know, instead of interested.”

Campbell said police are always hopeful National Night Out will encourage people to create a Neighborhood Watch group. No numbers were available regarding how many Watch groups have sprung out of the event.

National Night Out was started by the non-profit group National Association of Town Watch in the 1980s to promote neighborhood watch groups and crime watch volunteers. This year marks its 30th anniversary.

Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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