National Night Out unites neighbors, officials

Hundreds turn out for one of many events citywide Tuesday

August 02, 2011|By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun

Muriel Praileau was camped out on a folding chair behind a card table Tuesday night, eating potato chips and greeting everyone who passed.

"Where do I know you from?," the formidable president of the Evergreen Protective Association called out to a boy walking in front of her booth with a skateboard under his arm. The boy, startled, stopped and turned to her: "Lanvale."

"You done grown up on me," said Praileau, recognition spreading across her face. "That's what's happened." The boy asked her where he could get a soda and she pointed him to a tent where police where serving food off a grill across Helen Mackall Park, at the corner of Braddish and Edmondson avenues in West Baltimore.

Praileau knows nearly everyone in the Evergreen neighborhood, and National Night Out — an annual get-together intended to strengthen partnerships between communities and police — is an opportunity to get to know the few she doesn't.

"Night Out is about promoting safety in the neighborhoods," said Praileau, who thinks that people in her area are not as neighborly as they once were. The event, which has been happening in her community in some form for about 20 years, has shrunk over the years, she said. "Younger people just don't understand how to be neighbors."

"I just think when someone moves in, you go over and introduce yourself," Praileau said. "That's what you do."

Praileau's philosophy was embodied by her colleague, Kirin G. Smith, at the association's table. When Smith moved in across the street from Praileau five years ago, the New York native received a warm, neighborly welcome.

Several hundred other people gathered in the park Tuesday evening to take part in one of about 40 events across the city honoring National Night Out.

Adults were registering at one table to vote while kids bounced in inflatable bounce houses and had their faces painted like animals. Politicians mingled and asked people for their support in the coming election. Firefighters handed out metallic stickers shaped like badges to young ones and information on joining the city's ranks to teenagers and adults.

Police officers shook hands and answered questions from citizens concerned about the safety of their neighborhood. Three blocks away from the festivities, less than a month ago, a woman and her baby were carjacked and she was forced to jump onto the highway, clutching her child, to escape her abductor. In June, two blocks west, a man was shot dead.

Maj. Robert Booker, who has been in charge of the city's Western District police force for about two years, wants to make a positive impression on children before gang members and drug dealers can turn them against police.

"They put this cloud over the Police Department," said Booker. "Once they start seeing stuff like this, they realize that it's not true, what the drug dealers and the gangs are saying about police."

Booker admits that some kids see drug dealers more often than they see police. He's increased the number of officers on foot patrol in the district, he said, to increase young people's positive associations with the department.

"My son is scared of them," said Keyana Jones, who lives in Park Heights, of her 4-year-old boy. "He's seen a couple of his relatives locked up."

As they carefully watched the bounce houses, three women who run a nearby day care center and brought more than a dozen children to the event, said that it could be a challenge to shield children in the city from violence. Carolyn Miller recalled having to keep children in her care away from the windows as police tazed a man on the street outside.

"They're not so afraid of them when they see them doing something positive," said her co-worker, Taina Davis. Carolyn's adult daughter, Kim Miller, added that the kids were "having a ball" at the park, in a safe space without any violence.

But even at the Western District's National Night Out, the specter of neighborhood violence was present.

As kindergartners bopped in the grass while watching a dance troupe, the rhythm from the speakers on stage, instead of drums, was the sound of a gun being cocked and fired, over and over.

steve.kilar@baltsun.com

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