A Place to Enjoy a Meal, Music and Games While Forming Bonds with Police
On a recent Saturday evening, Caleb G stood with his sister Victoria on a stage setup in a corner parking lot, performing a rap selection that he wrote himself. His audience includes his fellow neighbors and the Police Area Representative. People are eating, chatting, and playing games, and most everyone is bobbing their head to the music. Others, like Caleb’s mom, are holding their hands to the sky.
“Woo! That’s awesome! Yeah!” exclaims a spectator.
Every summer for the past 18 years, Neighborhood Night Out events, like this one, take place across Springfield. The nights are supported by Community Partnership of the Ozarks’ Caring Communities Initiative, the Springfield Police Department, and local neighborhood associations. They take place in neighborhood parks or church parking lots, and are specifically designed to promote good relationships between area police officers and citizens.
“I was concerned all the time about my teenagers. Because the first thing I noticed was that, when they turned teens and started driving, my first warning was, hey look. Be careful. Make sure you’re wearing a seatbelt. If the police stop you, make sure you put your hands on the wheel and look at them carefully,” says Sondra.
That’s Sondra G, Caleb’s mother, who asked us not to use their family’s last name. She says when their family moved to this community in north Springfield 10 years ago, they didn’t feel very welcomed.
“As soon as they got their licenses within a week they were stopped. So I kind of had a little resentment of the way I saw things. I talked to other parents that were African American and Hispanic and they were saying the same things. And I wasn’t hearing that from other friends who were white.”
But her perception of and attitude toward police has changed, she says, thanks to officer participation at events like Neighborhood Night Out.
“They become involved in the community. People are talking to them, they are face to face,” Sondra says.
And that face to face interaction has made all of the difference.
“The control thing goes away and it becomes, I’m here to help. I’m not here to create an issue for you. And then when you need them for something, they’re coming to do what’s needed for crime, instead of treating people who are just walking down the street as criminals if they’re not.”
Being available and approachable, Sondra says, is a huge step in better police-citizen relationships.
“Like I met an officer today who was out here, and he was fantastic. He said ‘anytime you guys want us to come out’ he would come. And what that does is, people get to see him and get to meet him and they make a relationship and the police care about who they are working with.”
Jim Cooney has served as the neighborhood Police Area Representative for Sondra and other nearby families the past three and a half years.
“You wanna bracelet? Let me see what I have in my bag of tricks here… you wanna tattoo? You already have one? One of these? You sure?”
Right now, he’s offering stickers and bracelets to kids, who grin at him with brightly colored face paint on their cheeks.
“Our hours are not set, the officers assigned to this unit, so we can make ourselves available, we don’t have a set 9-5 everyday or four 10-hour shifts, or whatever,” Cooney says.
According to the Springfield Police Department website, there are eight Police Area Representatives on staff in the city. Four of those officers, including Cooney, are assigned to one of three zones across Springfield.
Cooney explains that PARs exist to serve as a go-between for citizens and patrol officers, help with other departments in the city, and to be readily available to assist those in need.
“I get email on my phone so I always tell people they can email me. I have given my personal cell phone number out, it just depends on the case.”
Additionally, Cooney says Police Area Representatives help address any long-term complaints or issues in a particular neighborhood.
“So anything from a couple of neighborhood disputes over maybe their property line for whatever reason has gotten out of hand and they couldn’t deal with, to you know, a neighbor thinks they’re neighbor is selling drugs.”
Lea Dingman, a resident of Cooney’s neighborhood, says being able to report things anonymously through the Police Area Representative makes her feel more safe.
“We used to be afraid of the police, afraid of calling them, and you know, we don’t want to get involved, but now we have officers, we can email them, call the cell phone and leave a message and say we have an issue here,” she says.
Dingman adds that Neighborhood Night Out help people connect with the city—and with each other.
A few miles away, another Neighborhood Night was well under way. Helen Diem smiled from a park bench while she watched her grandkids play in the park around us.
“They’ve had some trouble—every once in awhile I’ll get a report that the police are in the street, there’s been a shooting, I think all in all, they don’t let the kids play out as much as we’d like for them to,” Dingman adds.
Brandon Bowling, a PAR for Springfield’s center north zone, says Neighborhood Night Out events seem to be effective in reducing neighborhood crime.
“It helps us spread the word, it helps them, it allows them to be educated on the crime that’s going on in the town, keep up to date on what’s happening in the area, so they know what to look for,” says Bowling.
As for Sondra G, she says the fact that the officers make an effort to be involved in the community means she and her teenagers feel more welcomed in the community.
“I’ve seen a great difference. And I am proud of them," she says. "And I am watching the change, even though I know Furgeson’s happening, I was afraid we had kind of reverted back to that hostility, but so far so good.”
And as her son Caleb reminds us in his rap lyrics, sometimes, making progress in any area of your life is all about having the right mindset.
“Feelin’ bad about your situation won’t make a change, that’s guaranteed. Keep your head up. Smile and think about what you’ve got. God has got a purpose for your life."