Skokie police, residents partake in 'community bonding' with National Night Out event

Audrina Fregoso, 3, rides in a miniature Skokie police squad car Aug. 1, 2017, during the Skokie Police Department’s National Night Out event at Oakton Park in Skokie. Skokie police put on the family festival to encourage the forging of stronger relationships between police and the community as part of a national initiative. (Mike Isaacs / Pioneer Press)

by Mike Isaacs

It’s unlikely that anyone would argue that the festival that drew hundreds to Oakton Park Tuesday, was as safe as any the village of Skokie puts on every year.

That’s because no matter where you turned, there was a Skokie police officer or sergeant or other ranking member of the force standing right there. And that was just the point of National Night Out, a nationwideinitiative organizers claim is aimed at forging a stronger relationship between police and the community.

Skokie police Chief Tony Scarpelli, who welcomed those who stopped by, said the event gives an opportunity for people to meet and talk with police in a different environment.

“It’s really about strengthening the already excellent relationship we have with the citizens of Skokie,” Scarpelli said. “They get to see us as people and kids see that we’re not to be feared.”

National Night Out was created by the National Association of Town Watch, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “the development and promotion of various crime prevention programs including neighborhood watch groups, law enforcement agencies, state and regional crime prevention associations, businesses, civic groups and individuals devoted to safer communities,” according to information NATW distributes announcing the night out.

The first National Night Out in 1984 drew 2.5 million Americans across 400 communities in 23 states, according to its nonprofit founding organization.

NATW reports that National Night Out now involves over 37.8 million people and 16,124 communities from all 50 states, U.S. Territories, Canadian cities and military bases worldwide.

No two communities celebrate National Night Out in exactly the same way. Not even Skokie has celebrated the same way in the handful of years it has marked National Night Out, Scarpelli said.

National Night Out was held in Oakton Park in 2015 — just like this year — but police have also tried a series of small “greets” at area parks other years. Last year, it returned to one bigger event in Gross Point Park and this year it was back to Oakton.

The turnout this year may have been the event’s biggest, some officers said.

“This is my first year and I came because I became friends with the chief,” said Skokie resident Joe Conrad. “This is a great event because it brings everyone together and that’s always such a good thing.”

Oakton Park was first selected because neighborhoods around it were a focus area of the Many Cultures, One Community — Keeping Skokie Safe public safety campaign the village launched in 2015, Scarpelli said.

Scarpelli said the event provided a good opportunity to meet residents who at the time had some concerns about crime in the area. Many issues were resolved through the campaign, he said.

“Coming back here says we haven’t forgotten people in these neighborhoods,” Scarpelli said. “We pay significant attention to all areas and that shouldn’t have been the last time we visited this one. I think it’s important that you revisit areas you’ve had a focus on to make sure problems don’t recur.”

Although the night was about police and the community it serves, it was really a village-wide happening. The Skokie Park District not only provided the setting but employees grilled hot dogs and served other food. The Skokie Fire Department set up games and events and the village of Skokie was well represented, too.

Resident Christina Warnock said this event reflects the support police provide and sends an important message to children.

“It helps show that kids are able to come to the police comfortably and vice versa,” she said. “It shows children that police are friendly and approachable.”

And that’s just the message police wanted to send, Scarpelli said.

“We’re your neighbors, we’re your friends, we’re your relatives,” he said. “We are representative of your community.”

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