LUMBERTON — For Jason Ransom, Tuesday’s National Night Out event in his hometown of Lumberton was a bright spot in a recent deluge of negative news.
“You can’t turn on CNN or Fox News without hearing somebody shot someone, someone’s racist,” Ransom said. “I’m tired of the negativity.”
Ransom and his family were among a crowd at Lumberton’s downtown plaza, where one of three Robeson County observances of National Night Out were held Tuesday night. The annual event, established in 1984 by the National Association of Town Watch, is observed by more than 16,000 communities in the U.S. and Canada each year on the first Tuesday in August as a way to connect police and the communities they served. Rain held off long enough for people to enjoy the festivities, although an ominous forecast delayed National Night Out in Red Springs.
Ransom and his wife Catherine were glad to hear about a family-friendly event in their community. Children buoyed inside a bounce house, careened through the stream of a Lumberton Fire Department hose and got their faces painted.
Ransom said the event showed his children, 12-year-old Candon and 5-year-old Gracie, that they don’t need to fear police.
“I like for [Candon] to see stuff like this so he knows that just because you wear a badge doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” he said.
Lumberton police Lt. Vernon Johnson was happy to see so many young people.
“It’s hard to change the opinion of someone who is settled in that opinion,” he said, “but these kids, you can reach them.”
Officer Joshua Gilstrap, who joined the department about two years ago, said people sometimes come up to him on the street to thank him for serving the community. He hoped attendees at Tuesday’s event left knowing “that police officers are their friends.”
Lt. James Atkinson said National Night Out gives residents a chance to see officers “in a different light.”
Tuesday’s crowd was a testament to the support Lumberton officers receive from residents, said Lumberton Police Chief Mike McNeill. The town has observed National Night Out since the 1990s.
“We are a part of the community, not apart from the community,” he said.
McNeill stressed that residents can report crimes to the Police Department without giving their names.
“This is what policing is all about,” McNeill said, overlooking the crowd.
Patricia Liles said she knows several Lumberton officers and planned to meet more Tuesday. She hoped the event would leave attendees with a sense of “hope, love and togetherness.”
“I think we have one of the best police forces in the world,” she said. “They’re down to earth but they’re doing their jobs.”
Sabrina Leshore, a local attorney, said Lumberton is unlike other communities because police know the residents well and vice-versa, but there’s always room for improvement.
“I expect it to increase morale for police officers,” she said of the event. ” … In this setting, because people aren’t getting arrested or pulled over for traffic stops, I hope it gives some humanity.”
In Fairmont, officers from the Fairmont Police Department and the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office and hundreds of residents gathered at the Fairmont Community Park to have fun while promoting a safe community.
The night featured music by Mr. P and Friends, as well as performances by local churches and the Southern Sapphires, the Fairmont High school color guard, as well as games, bounce slides, and train rides for children.
As the night was getting started, Fairmont Police Chief Kimothy Monroe challenged those in attendance to take advantage of the opportunity National Night Out affords.
“Be sure to meet these people who work hard to serve you just by going by and saying hello,” said Monroe. “Make a friend.”
Fairmont Mayor Charles Townsend said building trust in young residents was an important.
“We want relationships where people know the police on a one-on-one basis, they get to see the police mingling with the public, without service or an emergency,” Townsend said. “This is what we hope for, that if a child was in a situation where they felt that they were in danger, they know that they can talk to the police.”
Fairmont residents Tonia Hayes and Teresa Hargett represented the Department of Social Services, but also wanted to show their support for the community and Police Department.
“Look at the children, it’s wonderful they are not thinking like the adults. That’s wonderful for me to see, there’s no agenda’s here,” Hayes said.
“It’s wonderful how nobody is seeing color, there’s no political issues, no religious issues, it’s just everybody coming together to enjoy each other under a common goal and to enjoy each other and have fun,” Hargett said.
Detective Anthony Spivey appreciated the support from the community and said that the event is critical to “bridging the gap” between officers and Fairmont residents.
Another officer, Sgt. Jonathan Evans, said that the event eases his mind amid tensions with police across the nation.
“We are police officers, but we are a part of the community, too,” Evans said.
Spivey and Evans are two of only six Fairmont police officers.
Town Commissioner Charles Kemp says the size of the department makes it even more crucial that the community knows and supports officers.
“There’s no way that two men on duty with four eyes can see all the crime that is going on in this community in one day, at one time, in one night,” Kemp said. “But if you have 2,400 people living in town, that’s 4,800 sets of eyes that someone can call the police department. If they can do that, and the police can respond, then it gives the perception that we are living in a better, safer, more crime-free environment. That’s what the partnership between citizens and the police is all about.”
Maxton marked National Night Out in Beacham Park with free food, face-painting, bounce houses, Disney characters and laser tag. Red Springs officials plan to meet later this week to decide on a rescheduled date for National Night Out.