Lights flashing, police vehicles and fire engines pulled into your neighborhood last night — but it wasn’t an emergency, it was National Night Out. With 12 block parties around Juneau, there were probably police officers and firefighters joining your neighborhood get-together.
Officer Matt Dubois briefed a packed room of police officers, firefighters, EMTs and Coast Guard Auxiliary members at the Juneau Police Department before the evening’s events on important issues: the stationing of McGruff the Crime Dog and a larger-than-life otter, as well as the deployment of the strategic candy reserve.
“This is an opportunity for people to meet first responders under positive circumstances,” Dubois told the group. “They’re excited to see you guys and they appreciate what you do.”
Juneau’s first responders, organized by JPD and community members, have been participating in National Night Out for several years. Across town and across the nation, neighborhoods organized block parties and invited local law enforcement and other first responders to join them.
For some, it is an opportunity to talk about the issues facing the neighborhood. For others, it’s a fun opportunity to get to know neighbors and check out the neat gadgets on a fire engine.
Lt. Dave Campbell has participated each year. He said at first the department wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned into a nice way to interact with the community in a non-emergency situation.
“They’re happy to see you show up,” he said, adding that police and firefighters normally show up under pretty negative circumstances.
Some block parties are relatively small, like one at the First Church of God on Ka See Ann Drive. Elwin Blackwell was the block captain and is a congregant of the church. He grew up in the neighborhood and his parents still live there, though he no longer does.
“It’s a good opportunity for neighbors to pull together,” he said.
Another attendee, William Venables, a coach at Thunder Mountain High School, said “There aren’t enough good influences around here.”
He was happy for an event like this to bring people together.
Blackwell said the neighborhood for a while had problems with youth vandalism, but it’s lessened.
“The neighborhood has gotten better over the years,” he said.
The church has been hosting this event for at least three years. It’s an opportunity for “folks to get to know their neighbors,” Blackwell said. “They’ll keep an eye out for each other.”
Easy Street, near the Mendenhall Glacier, was one of about 7 to 10 streets blocked off for a party.
Block Captain Courtney McNaughton said it was the first year for Easy Street — many of the houses on the street have been built only in the last year and a half. Twenty-seven houses participated in the block party, and she said it’s not uncommon for the 30 or so children who live on the street to be playing together most days. She jokingly called them the “Easy Street Gang.”
Once the neighborhood filled out with new construction, McNaughton said she knew they had to host a National Night Out event, mostly as an opportunity to block off the street for everyone to play and get to know each other.
Camp chairs formed a square in the middle of the street and kids zig-zagged along on bicycles or on foot, many donning capes and masks. It was a joyful kind of chaos. Most of the attention focused on the fire engine and police vehicles that pulled onto the street with red and blue lights brightening the evening sky.
“It’s the one time we get to hang out and people like to see us,” said Lt. Scott Erickson. “We get to connect with the community on a different level.”
For Easy Street, the event was mostly about the fun.
Riley McNaughton, 4, enjoyed hula hooping, playing games and eating cake, she said. She and the other kids also rode bikes festooned in streamers in a parade formation to kick off the block party.
Pointing at the fire engine, she said, “I get to go inside,” and, probably for the best, she responded with a “no” when her her mother asked if she pushed any buttons.
Despite the focus on fun, McNaughton acknowledged a public safety aspect to the event as well.
“If you know your neighbors, if you’re more aware of your surroundings, it reduces crime in neighborhoods,” she said, though she concluded: “This is just awesome. The kids love it.”