National Night Out, a 35-year nationwide celebration, was well represented in Rohnert Park this year as community members younger and older mingled with local police, firefighters, rescue professionals and other hosts at City Center Plaza last Tuesday evening, Aug. 7.
Rohnert Park community members milled about the plaza stopping at the tented kiosks set up by the Police and Fire Departments and others, asking questions and chatting with friends. Event goers could sit on a police motorcycle or check out Fire Engine 9982 which was on site, flashing lights and doors open to anyone wanting to sit in the driver’s seat or try on a firefighter suit/turnout. Sonoma County Search & Rescue was represented by Kodiak the search and rescue K9 who brought along Community Service Officers Moffitt, Thompson, Hayes and Poe to answer questions while he charmed the public. The Rohnert Park Animal Services Pet Adoption Wagon gave out information and showed future family members looking for forever homes. Kids could participate in a bike rodeo, play in the plaza fountain or work off steam in a giant police car bounce house. There was lots of activity yet when the National Anthem was sung it became quiet - hands on hearts and eyes on the flag.
Taking a break from the festivities located in the parking lot outside the Department of Public Safety, Rohnert Park Police Chief Brian Masterson, explained the philosophy at the core of National Night Out, which the city first joined nine years ago.
“The idea [for NNO] is the police communicating with citizens, they can work together to make the community safe,” he said Tuesday night. “We have a lot of partnerships with businesses and schools and that’s what you want. You want to be able to not just point to an officer but hopefully you know that officer and that’s what makes trusting relationships.”
Chief Masterson tells his officers to get out of their cars when they can and go into businesses for visits. “It’s an opportunity for the law enforcement and local community members to build relationships - to talk.”
He said he tells his officers, “Go up to the front counter, talk to people, ask them what’s going on. And then they get to know you and they feel good about the department. Then we’re going to build good relationships and we’re going to be safe.”
Masterson described citizens who partner with police to reduce crime as ‘force multipliers’.
“Criminals want to go into a neighborhood where nobody cares. [But] we have 40 thousand citizens that aren’t going to tolerate crime. They’re not going to tolerate people misbehaving in Rohnert Park and they call us,” the Chief explained.
National Night Out’s origin stems from the efforts of a man named Matt Peskin. In the late 1970s, Peskin volunteered for a Community Watch Program in Philadelphia. Community Watch was started by the National Sheriffs’ Association back in 1972 in an effort to curb a severe increase of crime which had begun in the late 1960s. Most are familiar with the Community (Neighborhood) Watch Program as generations have seen the signs posted in neighborhoods for over four decades.
Matt Peskin saw the importance of keeping the community enthusiastic about the program so started the Community Watch Newsletter to inform the community of the program’s successes. The monthly publication expanded to surrounding communities and in the process of reaching out to other places, Peskin discovered there were many Community Watch programs with nothing really connecting them. Skip ahead a few years - the National Association of Town Watch (NATW) is established with local police departments and community members all contributing to the association. A few years later the NATW presented the National Night Out celebration proclaiming it be held annually on the first Tuesday in August.
Today, the annual event is attended by 38 million neighbors in 16 thousand communities nationally.
“We have some of the highest citizen surveys in Rohnert Park,” Chief Masterson said proudly. “Last year 2400 people were surveyed, pretty good survey for a population of over 40 thousand. People were asked about the trust and confidence of their public safety department and 86 percent of the people said high trust/high confidence. On the fire side, 98 percent. So that tells me that our officers, our firefighters are building good relationships when they have that opportunity with the citizens.”