From 8 to 10 tonight, in an act of unity, many city residents will turn on their lights and sit on their front stoops chatting with their neighbors in a symbolic stand against crime.
The eighth annual National Night Out will be celebrated with marches, parades, candlelight vigils, block parties and other demonstrations in Baltimore and across the country.
The nationwide event was organized around the crime-fighting concepts of the Pennsylvania-based National Association of Town Watch, which promotes crime prevention and circulates a national newsletter.
National Night Out was designed to boost neighborhood spirit, increase crime awareness and show criminals that residents want to reclaim their streets, said Sgt. Robert E. Lassahn of Baltimore's Crime Resistance Unit.
"Just turning on an outside light and speaking with neighbors is a big step," he said. "In a lot of communities, people don't even interact with their neighbors.
"Every type of crime prevention program does have a social element to it," Lassahn said.
In fact, Lassahn said, many communities have cooperated with the police to form effective crime prevention programs, some of which have been born from the National Night Out program.
In 1982, Neighborhood Watch, a community anti-crime program, was one of the city's first successful crime prevention programs. By 1984, Lassahn said, the city witnessed its lowest burglary rate in about 12 years.
Other watch groups and crime prevention programs exist in the city and in most of the nearby counties. But police stressed that volunteers do not try to apprehend suspects.
Lassahn said that citizens' participation supplements the crime-fighting efforts of the police.
"One would have to wonder where we'd be without the help of our citizens," he said. "You can't say specifically how many crimes they've really prevented, but they keep at least a control in place."
Some 24 formal patrol groups operate throughout Baltimore, Lassahn said.
One group, the Northwest Citizens Patrol, has gained national recognition for its efforts.
Volunteers and a police guide drive around in 10 cars every evening, patrolling the Upper Park Heights area north of Northern Parkway. If they notice suspicious persons or situations, they radio the police escort.
Dr. Rusty White, the group's president, said the crime rate in the area has decreased by 70 percent since the group began nine years ago.
The Northwest Citizens Patrol also has a victims' assistance program, which works with victims to have their suspected attackers prosecuted.
White said his group has assisted in the prosecution of 50 suspects in the past three years, with a 100 percent conviction rate. The volunteers also show up at the criminals' parole hearings to protest their parole.
"[Street crime] against people is the thing that will destroy a neighborhood," White said. "Our long-term goal is to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood."
White said the three ingredients for a successful, community-based crime fighting organization are good leadership, committed members and a cooperative police department.
White said police departments from Houston, New York, South Carolina, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Canada have asked him to help them set up similar patrol groups in their areas.
Watch programs are proving effective elsewhere in the metropolitan area.
In Baltimore County, law officials have worked with residents to form several solid Neighborhood Watch programs in about 615 communities.
Baltimore County Police Sgt. Charles Jones said the watch groups have been very effective in reducing burglaries and juvenile disturbances.
Citizen Oriented Police Enforcement units are also in place in the county. Citizens survey the communities to discover various problems and residential fears and then report their findings to the police.
Anne Arundel also has Neighborhood Watch Programs and a related program called Operation Identification, in which residents engrave their belongings with driver's license numbers.
In another community program in Anne Arundel, block parents set up safe houses for kids to turn to if they feel in danger.
"There's never going to be enough police officers," said Officer Robert Aurand, of the Anne Arundel Crime Prevention Unit. "The citizens can help us, and all we're asking for is a little help. These programs do work."