Crime takes a Night Out

National program that gets police officers involved with the community is credited with reductions in Gainesville's crime rate.


Published: Saturday, August 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 at 10:42 p.m.

Since Gainesville has been involved with the National Night Out program, Charlotte Mendez, an on-site social worker at Village Green Apartments, has seen a positive change in how the youth in the area interact with police officers.

Facts

National Night Out events

Citizensí Academy Alumni Association: An event for seven east Gainesville neighborhoods, 5-8 p.m. Tuesday, Lincoln Park, 900 S.E. 15th St., featuring free food, entertainment, a bounce house, fire trucks, a law enforcement helicopter, SWAT and K-9 units from GPD, bike rodeo for kids, free school supplies.

Cedar Grove II, from 6:45-8:15 p.m., Cedar Grove Tot Lot, 2200 N.E. 12th Ave.

Duck Pond/Greater Northeast community, from 6:30-8 p.m., south side of Northeast Park, 400 N.E. 16th Ave.

Duval/Front Porch, from 6-7 p.m., Duval Elementary Fine Arts Academy, 2106 N.E. 8th Ave.

Village & Forest Green Apartments, 6-7:30 p.m., at the complex, 3101 N.E. 15th St.

Hampton Rose, from 5:30-7:30 p.m., at 1515 N.E. 8th Ave.

Oak Park High Rise, from 5-6 p.m., at 100 N.E. 8th Ave.

Porters neighborhood, from 6-8 p.m., Porters Community Center, 512 S.W. Second Terrace.

Gardenia Gardens Apartments, from 5:30-8 p.m., in the center of the complex, 1727 N.E. 8th Ave.

Lake City National Night Out, sponsored by Lake City Police Department, 6 to 9 p.m., Annie Mattox Park, Northeast Center Street.

Gainesville has been involved with the program - a nationwide event designed to strengthen community and police relations and fight back against crime - for five years.

"One of the benefits that it has, is that the youth views officers in a different light," Mendez said. "They get to see [the officer] as a person."

Mendez said Village Green is planning a spotlight on the youth event for this year's National Night Out, with activities and demonstrations by the Gainesville Police Department.

Mendez said the crime rate has been significantly reduced, and the event has helped keep youth away from crime.

"Whenever there's a crisis here, the community really comes together," Mendez said. "We have a lot of losses in this community. This event brings the community together for a peaceful event, you know, it's all about bringing the neighborhood back."

Dubbed "America's Night Out Against Crime," this year's National Night Out event will be held on Tuesday.

More than 30 Gainesville neighborhoods will be involved this year, with a variety of events scheduled throughout the city.

Hanan Bilal, social services coordinator for Gardenia Gardens, a Gainesville housing project, agrees that National Night Out helps children and adults to see a different side of the police.

Bilal said that in a multi-family residential unit like Gardenia Gardens, it is common to see the police there for burglary calls, or because someone is getting evicted. National Night Out allows residents to fight back against crime and see the police in a different atmosphere.

"We have seen some crime in the area, definitely," Bilal said. "But it's primarily not residents; it's people around the area running through selling drugs. But we've been working closely with the police department. The goal is to keep people informed."

Both Mendez and Bilal organize events and help provide services to the low-income families in the communities they work in. Village Green offers free tutoring programs, mentoring, step and dance classes and a summer lunch program. Gardenia Gardens offers job workshops, free on-site Girl Scouts and Sunday school programs.

"We're trying to really encourage the kids," Bilal said. "And let them know that just because you are low-income, you can still do whatever you want."

However, funding for these programs is a concern.

Bilal said she hopes her job will soon be funded full time, instead of only 15 hours a week.

"It's a daily effort, but every bit helps," Bilal said. "There's no magic wand."

However, crime is decreasing and people are becoming more aware, Bilal said.

She said watching police demonstrations at the National Night Out event also helps spark career ideas for the kids.

"They think, 'Hey, I might want to be a police officer someday,' " Bilal said.

The Gardenia Gardens National Night Out event will feature demonstrations from the Gainesville Police Department's K-9 Unit and motorcycle patrol. Free school supplies will also be handed out.

"There are events all over the city, from block parties to neighborhood walks," said Gainesville Police Department Cpl. Audrey Mazzuca. "If people do not attend, we're asking them to turn on their porch lights in recognition."

Mazzuca, who is coordinating this year's National Night Out event, said the annual Night Out has been very successful in bringing the police department closer to Gainesville communities in the past, and helps the police develop relationships with the neighborhoods in which they work.

"It gives us a chance to go into the community and show them what we do," Mazzuca said. "We get to show off our latest equipment and just interact with residents."

She said the event is great for the kids, who get to interact with SWAT team members, the K-9 units and the mounted patrol.

"It's a proven fact that when neighborhoods are involved, you have a lower crime rate," Mazzuca said. "I'm sure it's a wake-up call [for criminals] when they see a neighborhood fighting back."

Chiquitta Henderson is the National Night Out organizer for North Lincoln Heights, which boasts one of the largest events in the area. Last year, the National Night Out event turned out about 500 residents.

"Seven neighborhoods are joining us to make one big block party at Lincoln Park," Henderson said. "They tell us that ours is one of the biggest ones within the city."

Henderson said representatives from Office Depot and Target will be there to hand out backpacks and school supplies.

"A lot of these kids are from low-income families," she said. "This is like a big end-of-summer party for them."

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