Several residents, teens, and families enjoyed free festivals and community events across the country Tuesday evening thanks to their local police departments, who hosted the annual National Night Out, which occurs every first Tuesday in August. The goal of the event is to build and keep a positive relationship between law enforcement agencies and their communities, especially the youth.
“The National Night Out is an event that was started by the National Association of Town Watch to bring community partnership with emergency services and to educate the community about what our emergency services can do for them,” said Lt. Rich Shofstall, of the Winchester Police Department. “It’s always brought to you by the police departments, that’s where all this started from, but through the years we’ve also encompassed EMS squads and fire departments.”
“We want to build on that friendship because we can’t do our job without the community helping us, so we want them to know that we’re here for them and vice versa if we ever need their help,” added Chief David Benjamin, of the Winchester Police Department.
In the eastern greater Cincinnati area, the police departments of Amelia, Cincinnati, Goshen Township, Hillsboro, Miami Township, Milford, New Vienna, New Richmond, Williamsburg, Winchester, and more all held the community event, which is in its 31st year. Aberdeen also hosted their own version of NNO Friday, Aug. 8.
Law enforcement can have a unique effect on people: just their presence can make even the most straight-laced, upstanding citizens anxious — even if they’re not breaking the law. Improving that awkward relationship is just one goal of NNO, that law enforcement is a resource that wants to help its community.
Most NNO’s have a festival-like atmosphere. In Winchester, the main part of town was closed as two-story inflatables and bounce houses — one in the shape of a large firetruck — filled the road. There were also games, a dunking booth, free food, emergency vehicles on display, musical entertainment, free goodies, and booths set up displaying law enforcement, drug, and community information.
“We have the DEA here — they’re showing you the drug enforcement they do on the federal level at the airport in the Cincinnati area,” Lt. Shofstall said. “They go out 110 miles from the airport in radius for drug enforcement, so they actually cover our area, too.”
The DEA booth displayed high-powered weaponry but the group also brought a canine, Joey, with them.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. To really make the seriousness of the region’s drug problem hit home, the Winchester Police Department highlighted stories of some local individuals whose lives have been ripped apart by substance abuse, drugs, and crime.
“As far as education, we have a presentation with some pictures and videos of some drug abuse victims — be it a local person or a celebrity — so we can educate people that these problems affect all walks of life, and could even affect you or your own children if you’re not careful,” Lt. Shofstall said.
According to Chief Benjamin, many cases of drug experimentation and abuse stem from the most unsuspecting state of mind. Not anger, not sadness — but boredom.
“Obviously our community has a drug problem, it’s not just our community, it’s nationwide,” Chief Benjamin said. “As for why people do them, a lot of people tell me the answer is that there’s so much free time — they don’t have things to do, there’s nothing for the kids to do, so therefore they experiment. And then when they experiment with some of the drugs that we’re dealing with now, such as heroin and pills, they get hooked very quickly because it’s a very addictive drug, very addictive.”
In small towns like Winchester, the majority of available youth activities are hosted by churches or church sports leagues — gone are the days where children and teens could walk uptown and find an arcade, a video store, a bookstore, and multiple places to snack with their friends. Gone are the days when parents didn’t have to think twice about their children walking uptown by themselves, and the drug problem is largely to blame.
Because of their heavy involvement in the community and sponsorship of youth activities, local churches were also on-site giving out free goodies and informing the community of the services they have to foster youth and keep them off the streets.
“We’re trying to show our presence so people know that we’re here and that if the kids ever need to talk to us, they’re welcome at our church,” said Beverly Mathias, of the Winchester United Methodist Church and the Adams County Health Department. “Our youth group just keeps growing, which is a good thing. We, as a community and as parents, need to start educating these kids when they’re young and not wait until they’re 13, 14, or 15. The younger generation are the ones who are going to be able to stop this epidemic and not do drugs anymore. It’s sad hearing kids’ stories about their parents.”
And when children grow up in households with drug abusers, it’s no secret that they themselves have a greater chance of doing drugs as well, that’s why booths set up information specifically for parents.
“See this regular Coke can? This looks just like a regular everyday item, but is it?” Chief Benjamin asked, pulling the can’s circular, silver top off to reveal the can had been turned into a storage container for drugs.
He then grabbed an iPod off a demonstration table.
“Every kid’s got an iPod,” Chief Benjamin said, then pulling the front cover off. “But this is actually a digital scale so they can weigh their drugs. This is just some of the stuff that we’re dealing with. If you’re a parent, we want you to be aware of these things so when your kid has stuff sitting on his or her dresser, you’re not afraid to check it out. You just never know.”
Lt. Shofstall said he hopes Winchester continues hosting NNO every year.
For more information about National Night Out or the National Association of Town Watch, visit www.natw.org.