National Night Out: Tarrant neighborhoods, police look to strengthen ties

National Night Out, Garden Of Eden Neighborhood Gets Ready

The historic Garden of Eden neighborhood is preparing for friends, food, family and fun for National Night Out on Tuesday. Star-Telegram video by Paul Moseley
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The historic Garden of Eden neighborhood is preparing for friends, food, family and fun for National Night Out on Tuesday. Star-Telegram video by Paul Moseley

The news of more than a year of controversial police shootings and protests filters into the Garden of Eden, a tiny, historically African-American neighborhood in east Fort Worth that dates to the Civil War.

But the unrest seems far removed, lifelong resident Trina Sanders said last week as she organized a church party for Tuesday’s annual National Night Out.

“We already made it where there’s a bridge,” said Sanders, whose home is among just 10 in the 25-acre rural neighborhood. “We have dialogues. We have our own neighborhood police officer, our own go-to person.”

That seems to reflect the “energy” among block-party planners as each shooting and rally played out in the news media, said Matt Peskin, founder of the National Association of Town Watch and creator of National Night Out. Since 1984, the program has encouraged neighborhoods to throw a crime-fighting social gathering on a nationally designated date each year to build relationships between residents and their police force.

When the block parties took place Aug. 4 in every state but Texas, which favors October, participation was higher, Peskin said.

“It just seems there were more people turning out to show their support,” he said. “They were anxious to say, ‘We have a good relationship with our local law enforcement, and we have good community groups that work together to prevent crime.’ 

Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson and newly chosen Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald will attend block parties and other events in their cities.

Robert Moore, a General Motors Arlington assembly plant retiree, said his Eastgate neighborhood — located near Naval Air Station Fort Worth — is diverse: a full mixture of Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and Anglos. As he and others worked on party planning, he said he hadn’t felt any tension in the neighborhood toward the police.

“I think it’s something in the line of duty, something happens,” he said.

Participation hasn’t been an issue in Texas or Tarrant County. Fort Worth police are rounding up as many officers as possible to drop by the 153 block parties across the city planned by Crime Watch and other groups, including Citizens on Patrol and homeowners associations.

“Everyone we can spare,” said Martha Mabry, crime prevention coodinator for the Fort Worth Police Department. “They’re still on call. So the neighborhood police officers usually make all the locations in their beat, and the patrol officers stop by when they can.”

Arlington police expect a whopping 184 parties Tuesday night, but last year’s list was even longer — 192. This year some neighborhoods are joining together for bigger events.

“They combined resources to make the party bigger and better,” said Arlington police Sgt. Vincent Pewitt, who supervises the crime-prevention unit.

The Arlington and Fort Worth police departments are not going it alone Tuesday. Increasingly over the years, their fire departments have deployed firefighters and shiny red firetrucks to meet families and add fire safety tips to the crime-prevention theme.

Texas is the only state that doesn’t have its Night Out in August.

Top police brass also will make the rounds. Newly chosen Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald and the command staff will drop in on several parties, as will City Council members, Mabry said.

Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson will engage in some party-hopping as well.

“It’s a surprise for the neighbors,” Pewitt said of Johnson’s visits, which are not made public in advance. “Everyone tries to feed him, so by the time he gets to the third or fourth party, he’s pretty full.”

One of the larger events will be hosted by Woodland West, a subdivision of about 1,200 homes near Park Row Drive and Bowen Road in Arlington, which has participated only since 2011. Volunteers are setting up shop in the Dottie Lynn Recreation Center, where almost 25 vendors of arts and crafts and other wares will be a main feature.

“We’re trying to support our local businesses,” said Michael Lohman, event coordinator. “It’s a good time to get everybody to turn their porch lights on and get out and meet everybody, and show support for the firefighters and police.”

Block party activities usually include cookouts and catered food, live or jam box music, inflated bounce houses, games, and chili or barbecue cook-offs. They typically follow the program-recommended operating hours of 6 to 9 p.m. — possibly the worst three hours of the year to call in with a noise complaint.

It just seems there were more people turning out to show their support.

Matt Peskin, founder of the National Association of Town Watch, on how recent headlines involving police shootings affected turnout at this year’s National Night Out events

The recent string of police shootings of unarmed young black men had its high-profile beginning on Aug. 9, 2014, when a white police officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The death galvanized the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Almost exactly a year later, the national turmoil came to Arlington after rookie police officer Brad Miller fatally shot 19-year-old burglary suspect Christian Taylor, a college football player. Johnson fired the officer for violating police procedure leading up the shooting.

Luis Castillo, president of the 4353 Council of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Arlington, said he was a patrol officer for nine years in Laredo, “so I can relate to both sides of the issue.”

“We’ve always supported National Night Out, and we are supportive of our Police Department,” said Castillo, who praised Johnson’s handling of the Taylor incident. “Most officers do an outstanding job, but they’re human, and sometimes they use poor judgment.”

Area police officials said strong community-policing practices throughout the year maintain the relationships founded at the annual block parties.

“It’s hard to establish relationships after something has happened,” said Sgt. Rick Van Houten, president of the 1,500-member Fort Worth Police Officers Association. “In Fort Worth for the last couple of decades, we have been focusing on and building those relationships, so when the national headlines came out over the past year, we had good support, good relationships already established.”

National Night Out hasn’t needed the high-profile friction to thrive.

38 millionNumber of people expected to participate in National Night Out, up from 2.5 million in 1984

Participation has soared since its 1984 turnout of 2.5 million people at events in 400 communities in 23 states.

“We’ll finish up this year with 16,500 communities in every state — 38 million people,” Peskin said.

Texas is the only state that doesn’t have its Night Out in August, when the average heat index surely suppresses some crime all on its own. It took 10 years of discussions with the Town Watch organization to get permission to have the night on the first Tuesday of October, said Mabry, the Fort Worth crime prevention coordinator.

“Everybody else celebrates it in August,” she said. “And it’s too doggone hot to do that.”

The national association is based in the cooler climes of Philadelphia. A pivotal moment came when Peskin was persuaded to visit Texas during in August. “And I think that’s what did it,” Mabry said.

Peskin said the reluctance to add a second date was not about tradition or stubbornness.

“You don’t want them all going out and selecting their own date,” Peskin said, “because it ruins the whole impact of National Night Out — everyone doing it at the same time.”

Although the Garden of Eden was established in 1860, it has participated in National Night Out only since 2005, when the city designated a 12-acre section of the community as the city’s first African-American cultural and historic district.

It’s hard to establish relationships after something has happened.

Rick Van Houten, president of the 1,500-member Fort Worth Police Officers Association

Sanders said the Police Department has kept the neighborhood assigned to the same patrol officer for several years to keep the community ties strong. The officer makes regular appearances on the Garden’s streets and stoops and attends the neighborhood’s quarterly meetings.

“I like that community policing,” Sanders said. “It does work. When a kid can come up to a police officer and give a high-five and say, ‘Hey, come look at my car,’ I think you just might encourage a kid to want to be a police officer.”

Robert Cadwallader: 817-390-7186, @Kaddmann_ST

History of National Night Out

1981: Matt Peskin launches National Association of Town Watch, a national nonprofit that works with law enforcement officials and civilian leaders to keep volunteers “informed, interested involved and motivated.”

Aug. 7, 1984: The first National Night Out takes place.

August 1993: Peskin’s organization introduces project365 to extend the goal of National Night Out. The yearlong program gives residents a chance to work with the assistance of police to build a safer neighborhood.

July 2014: National Association of Town Watch adds a program to encourage dog walkers nationwide to serve as extra eyes and ears for police.