Strengthening bonds

Courtesy photo: Officers band together for National Night Out in 2019 in front of the Pioneer Park bandshell. After a COVID-19 break in 2020, National Night Out is back Tuesday to help improve communication between law enforcement officers and the public. There will be food, drinks, kids activities, music and prizes. Law enforcement vehicles will be on scene for people to look at, and officers will be on hand for the public to question about their jobs.

National Night Out is opportunity for law enforcement, community to get acquainted

BROOKINGS – If you ever wanted to ask law enforcement officers any questions, National Night Out is the perfect opportunity.

National Night Out is set from 5-8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3, at Pioneer Park as part of Back the Blue Police Week, Aug. 2-7, Brookings County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Conrad said.

There will be food, drinks, kids activities, music, prizes and opportunities for the public to talk to officers and look at their equipment, Conrad said. 

“It gives us the opportunity to interact with those that we serve,” Conrad said, which helps the public get to know the law enforcement officers and other first responders in a relaxed setting, instead of meeting only in stressful situations.

Conrad says most people in this area are supportive of law enforcement, but “we can always strive to be better” and build more trust.

Activities

National Night Out started locally in 2017, Conrad said.

Conrad was a University Police officer at the time; Michael Popp was with Brookings Police, and Michael Gengler was a Brookings County Sheriff’s deputy.

“(We) were like, ‘We should hold a community event … where we really interact with our public,’” Conrad recalled. “We really wanted to do something in the summer that would draw in every age and every group.”

That first year, the event had little more than freeze pops, Conrad said.

“I think we had somewhere in the ballpark of 100-150 people,” he said. “We created something on a whim, and since then, we’ve progressively grown to this year.”

The last one, in 2019, drew around 250 people, Conrad figured.

Attendees can expect a multitude of food trucks, a cotton candy machine, popcorn machine, drinks, bounce houses, a deejay playing music and a prize raffle.

The Brookings Police Department Foundation will have a table, selling T-shirts, flags and hoodies, and taking donations for a drone for the police department.

Representatives from the Brookings County Sheriff’s Office, Brookings Police Department, University Police Department, South Dakota Highway Patrol, and Game, Fish and Parks “will bring some form of vehicle from their agency and it allows the public to see what it is that’s inside these police cars,” Conrad said.

Giving people a chance to look in the vehicles is an important learning experience, he said.

“A lot of the population doesn’t really know what’s inside and what all the equipment that we have, so that’s a big portion that we want to have the public see what it is that we’re doing. Not just a guy driving in a car or a gal driving in a car,” Conrad said.

There are many businesses and organizations that have donated to the event in one way or another, he added.

“It’s been pretty cool to see the community want to donate and be a part of this event,” Conrad said.

“It’s not a serious event. You can come out and you relax and have a good time and you can bring your kids out. It’s a safe environment – clearly, with a bunch of cops everywhere – a safe environment for everyone to just hang out,” Conrad said.

When he says everybody, he means everybody. “It’s an all-age event … it’s important that no matter what age group, that we can connect with everybody,” Conrad said.

Casual atmosphere

The first time that many people meet law enforcement is in emergency situations when they’re scared and stressed.

“Rather than only seeing law enforcement when someone’s in dire need,” meeting officers and other first responders in a casual, fun atmosphere “humanizes who we are,” Conrad said.

“It’s very important we create that trust and bond with our citizens … that they know who we are,” he said. 

“We want to familiarize people with us, and from this event, over the years, recognition has actually gone up. When I go to calls out in the county, I have noticed a large uptick in people knowing who I am,” Conrad said, noting he’s not from this area originally. “So, the fact that I’d be recognized is a good thing. It means that what we’re doing in all of the programs and events that we do is starting to show effect.”

Knowing the people who are coming to help them in an emergency helps the public – and the officers – resolve the situation, Conrad said, and that’s good for everyone. 

“It’s important that they know who we are because it doesn’t matter when someone’s in dire need – they don’t see the difference in decals on the side of the car. They don’t see what color uniform we’re wearing or what badge we have affixed to our chest. They see a law enforcement officer and when they need help, that’s what they are wanting,” Conrad said.

Growing and spreading out

National Night Out will feature lots of local officers, but Conrad hopes the event itself takes root across the state.

“We’d like to see this grown into a regional deal where agencies from all over the region can come over and be a part of this,” Conrad said. “I think that would be really cool.”

He said it’s a great tool to stay in touch with the 20,000-plus people who call Brookings home and show them what modern-day policing is.

People who come to National Night Out ask a lot of questions, he noted.

“They’re curious about this mysterious profession of law enforcement. It answers a lot of questions that people didn’t know about law enforcement or misconceptions about law enforcement. We do have a lot of open dialogue when we’re there,” Conrad said.

“Luckily, we live in a community in Brookings County that is extremely supportive of law enforcement. It’s an extremely safe place to live, in my opinion,” Conrad said.

He wants Brookings to lead the way for other communities in “creating a tighter bond, law enforcement to community.”

“It’s important that all of these agencies get involved because what it shows is not only are we connecting with our communities, but it shows our community that no matter what uniform, what car is driven, what badge is worn, we all work together in a collective effort to provide service for everybody,” Conrad said.

Building relationships

Some communities have what Conrad calls a “disconnect between law enforcement and its citizens that they serve; sometimes there is distrust.”

He said that’s not the case in Brookings.

“I would say the overall percentage of people are very supportive of law enforcement and that makes our job easier,” Conrad said. “But we can always strive to be better.”

Communication and trust are key, he said.

Police officers are just like everyone else, Conrad said, most of them have families of their own and things they do off the job, like hobbies, sports, organizations and church. 

People need to know what job law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders do so they know how these public servants can help them, whether that’s getting a kitten out of a tree or helping them get justice for a crime. 

“People’s needs are important. Us providing service is important, so that trust, that bond that we have as law enforcement, we need that to be absolute No. 1 on our list,” Conrad said.

“I can speak for all the men and women that I work with and work alongside in this county and this area: everybody has the same mission and everybody that puts the badge on every single day is willing to make the same sacrifice,” Conrad said.

Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]

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