Indiana University Kokomo Police Officer Derek Kidwell leaned back and threw a football to the eagerly awaiting group of kids standing across the street at Garden Square Apartments Tuesday evening. A couple moments later, the ball landed in the hands of a little boy, who then raised his hands in excitement.
Similar scenes played out in several different areas of the city too, all part of Kokomo’s National Night Out, a crime and drug prevention event that partners together private citizens, law enforcement, civil groups, businesses and elected officials.
It’s the 35th year for the national event, which is sponsored by the National Association of Town Watch in the United States and Canada.
Every year, the event consists of cookouts, fun and games and important community conversations, and it ends with an evening of free swimming at the Kokomo Beach.
It also allows law enforcement officers an opportunity to mingle with members of the public, something Kokomo Police Department Maj. Brian Seldon said is crucial to building trust with the city’s citizens.
“National Night Out lets the public see us in a different light, and it’s an opportunity for us to come out and actually get in the communities and really interact with the individuals,” he said. “Over the past couple of years, it seems like police and parts of the community, there’s that lack of trust. And we just want to continue the trust partnerships and take an active role in listening, talking and interacting with those individuals.”
Kokomo resident Crystal Whalen said National Night Out also has been very beneficial in helping her own children overcome some of their fears of police officers, and she said she loves to see law enforcement officers really take a strong role in community policing.
“It’s good to see them [police] get involved with the kids and actually play with the kids, and the kids really take to them,” she said. “We’re usually just used to seeing them out here when there’s something bad that happened, so it’s nice to see them when it’s just something like this.”
This is the second time Whalen, who’s from St. Louis, has participated in the city's National Night Out, and she noted she loves how the event allows neighbors to come together and really learn about each other.
“I like how everybody looks out for each other, especially for the kids,” she said. “Everybody just watches out for everyone else. It’s not just ‘their’ kids. It’s ‘our’ kids.”
Over at Dunbar Court, Kokomo Housing Authority employee Tonya Burnett was busy setting out food and drinks for their own get-together to celebrate National Night Out, and she noted it’s one of her favorite nights of the year.
“We really don’t get a chance to interact casually with a lot of our clients and neighbors and friends in this area,” she said, “and this just lets folks see that we can let our hair down and have a little food, fun and a great time.”
Burnett personally has been involved in National Night Out for the past 28 years, and she said opportunities like Tuesday's event really have made positive impacts on the Dunbar Court community.
“It’s helped out tremendously around here in this neighborhood,” she said. ”It’s good for everyone to get to know who you live next to and all the kids in the area. It’s just always a good thing to be able to keep an eye out for one another.”
And perhaps no one knows that better than the self-described “mayor of Dunbar Court” herself.
Barbara Ewing has lived in the area for decades, and she said she does her best to keep the peace in the neighborhood.
“I keep everything under control,” she said smiling. “I’ve been here a mighty long time, and I make sure everything’s doing good in our community.”
And as more people began to gather around a nearby table full of food and drinks, Ewing looked around at the crowd of neighbors.
“This is our neighborhood,” she said. “I’m concerned about where I live at, and I want this place to be nice. We’re family here. We’re supposed to be. And if something happens here, it happens to all of us.”