‘National Night Out’ now ‘Night to Unite’

Prior Lake Police Officer Maureen O"™Hehir leads a group of children on a bike parade during last year"™s National Night Out. This year"™s event will be on Tuesday, Aug. 4. To request police or firefighters at a party, contact O"™Hehir at (952) 447-9874 or mo

By Shawn Hogendorf, Staff Writer 

When police officers, firefighters and city staff members take to about 20 Prior Lake neighborhoods to celebrate an event formerly tagged as National Night Out on Tuesday, Aug. 4, it will once again be an event for neighbors to get to know one another – but it will also be to ring in a new event called Night to Unite.

With the financial controversy that has surrounded the National Association of Town Watch (which oversees National Night Out) over the last couple of years, the Prior Lake Police Department decided to participate in both the national event (National Night Out) and the state’s new version of the event (Night to Unite) at the same time.

The two programs are essentially the same, Officer Maureen O’Hehir said, but the change supports the event on a state level and avoids some of the controversy that the National Association of Town Watch has endured on the national level.

 “Regardless of the name of the event, it is still about building relationships with neighbors,” O’Hehir said. “Strength in crime prevention comes from neighbors being the eyes and ears for police and watching out for one another.”

O’Hehir offered up one example of how strong community involvement can deter crime.

Earlier this year, O’Hehir said she responded to a theft call after a person left open the garage door to a third stall and had various items stolen. Often, people can’t see if they left a garage door open because garages are located at the front of homes, O’Hehir said. Neighbors can help deter this type of common crime by calling a neighbor if they notice something is out of the ordinary.

The idea behind National Night Out when it started 26 years ago was to increase awareness about police programs such as drug prevention, town watch and other anti-crime efforts.

Over the years, National Night Out grew from lights-on vigils to full-blown block parties, cookouts, visits from local police and firefighters, parades, flashlight walks around neighborhoods and a variety of youth activities.

“National Night Out is more of a social gathering to put names, faces and contact information with addresses,” O’Hehir said. “We hope the events are a start to working together as neighborhoods to hold crime prevention meetings in a more formalized way throughout the year.”

The event gives police the opportunity to talk about the topics that concern people about their neighborhood on their turf, O’Hehir said. It allows police to go into neighborhoods and speak with a lot of people in a short time.

“If people get together one night a year and build relationships with each other – that’s huge,” O’Hehir said. “After building those relationships, people will hopefully call when something going on in their neighborhood doesn’t fit.”

In addition to the neighborhood parties that police and firefighters head out to every year, about eight new neighborhoods have signed up for the event, realizing the importance of getting to know their neighbors, O’Hehir said.

The event also is a great way for police officers to meet the public on positive terms, O’Hehir said. It’s a chance to talk with people in the community who officers wouldn’t otherwise meet.

When conducting the event, O’Hehir said filling out sign-in sheets with information people are comfortable sharing – such as phone numbers and e-mail addresses – is helpful so neighbors can discuss things that may not seem right in their neighborhoods.

“This is all about going back to the old days when people used to get to know their neighbors,” O’Hehir said. “Even if neighborhoods are unable to gather in groups, I suggest people play with the kids in the front yard instead of the back yard on Tuesday. This will help show people you are paying attention to what is going on in your neighborhood.”

In looking back at past National Night Out parties, O’Hehir said some of her favorite memories include leading a bike parade in the Storm Circle neighborhood and being recognized from other events she has attended in the community.

The parties don’t have to be grand, O’Hehir said. A simple potluck or root beer float party can be very successful.

 To request police and firefighters to attend a party, contact Officer Maureen O’Hehir at (952) 447-9874 or mohehir@cityofpriorlake.com before Friday, July 31.

 Shawn Hogendorf can be reached at (952) 345-6374 or shogendorf@swpub.com.