- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2000

Residents in hundreds of Washington area communities gathered outdoors last night to take part in the 17th annual National Night Out, an event to symbolically reclaim neighborhood streets from crime.

Some sat on their well-lit porches and stoops chatting the night away with their neighbors. Others hosted block parties, parades, cookouts, contests and even vigils for victims of crime.

In Alexandria, Va., 8-year-old Kevin Shifflett stabbed to death April 19 as he played in front of his great-grandparents' home in Del Ray was remembered with a song at a gathering at Mount Vernon and Oxford avenues, about two blocks from where he was killed.

About 20 children with the Mount Vernon Young Performing Artists sang "You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings." The group for children between the ages of 5 and 10 perform through the Mount Vernon Recreation Center, where Kevin spent a lot of his free time.

Kevin's great-grandfather Thomas Taylor was seated in front of the choir, and became teary-eyed as it sang.

"I loved the song," Mr. Taylor said. "All the children seemed to know Kevin, and what they did was very nice.

"The community, the police and the whole city have been very cooperative, and we deeply appreciate all their help," Mr. Taylor said.

Last night's event marked the first official community gathering since Kevin's slaying.

"It's a big event for us, especially for this neighborhood, and it has greater meaning to us now because of the tragedy," said Ron Imbach, a Del Ray resident and member of the Alexandria Jaycees, which co-sponsored the event with the Potomac West Business Association.

In the first few months after Kevin was killed, Mr. Imbach said residents became more cautious of their surroundings, keeping their children indoors almost every day. With yesterday's event, he said, "We wanted people to come out and make them feel comfortable again."

National Night Out is considered by Neighborhood Watch groups and law enforcement officials as an effective way to increase awareness of crime and drug prevention, generate support for local anti-crime efforts and strengthen neighborhood spirit and police-community relations.

"This is the most important night of the year," said Fairfax County (Va.) Police Officer Josh Brown, a crime-prevention specialist. "This is the night that says goodbye to crime. It shows there is absolute solidarity in the neighborhoods."

The National Association of Town Watch in Wynnewood, Pa., kicked off the event in 1984 to bring the communities closer together, said the group's executive director, Matt Peskin. It attracted 2.5 million people in 400 communities nationwide.

Since then National Night Out has been held every year during the first week of August and is observed by 32 million people in 9,500 communities.

"We just wanted to provide communities with a high-profile crime prevention event that involved all the neighborhoods at one time," Mr. Peskin said. "It's not just an educational forum where everyone just sits and talks about things. It's about going out and meeting your neighbors and having fun at the same time."

Each community celebrates the night by hosting its own activities to bring neighbors closer together. And all communities encourage homeowners and residents to turn on their outdoor lights to highlight the need for year-round safety, police said.

"It really bolsters people's morale," said Kevin Hawkins, a Silver Spring, Md., resident and district organizer of the Plymouth Street & Bradford Road Neighborhood Watch Organization, whose event last night drew nearly 200 residents, county and state officials.

"This night brings people out, and it lets them meet neighbors they never knew," Mr. Hawkins said. "And it makes our neighborhood a healthier, safer and a better place to live."

Residents along Plymouth Street and Bradford Road last night tied balloons onto their illuminated porches and chatted with neighbors and Montgomery County police officers who dropped by to talk to residents about their concerns.

"It's about making your police department aware of any problems your community may be having," said Mr. Hawkins, who began organizing his neighborhood's Night Out three years ago. "It's about putting criminals on notice."

Officers with the Hyattsville (Md.) City police department began this year's Night Out celebration last Saturday when they displayed some police equipment and crime-prevention information in the parking lot of Prince George's Plaza.

Last night, officers went out into the neighborhoods some in cruisers and others on bikes to meet with residents, who spent most of the evening outdoors on their porches and lawns.

"It's a very significant event," said Lt. Steve Walker with the city police department. "It gets people to think about safety which should stay in the forefront of everyone's mind all the time."

Across the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Neighborhood Watch groups in each of the county's seven police districts held their own picnics, parades and bike rodeos. Police also used the night's activities to collect used cellular telephones, which will be donated to victims of domestic violence and neighborhood watch groups, Officer Brown said.

In the District of Columbia, community leaders and residents had to battle weather while taking a stand against crime, as thunderstorms forced the kickoff event indoors at the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Club on Benning Road NE.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and council members Kevin P. Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat, and Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat, joined Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey to officially bring on the night.

"I guess, depending on the weather, it's national night in," said Chief Ramsey at the kickoff for more than 60 citywide activities that included cookouts, block parties and neighborhood walks.

The city has seen a burst of violent activity recently, with five persons killed over a four-day span.

"Ultimately, National Night Out does serve as a reminder to us all, and really as a springboard," Chief Ramsey said. "[But] it's still not enough. There's still a lot of tragedy in our communities."

The Boys and Girls Club event was the first of seven Mr. Williams was to attend last night.

"Tonight is going to be a safer night in D.C.," Mr. Williams said. "Tonight we're going to say we're going to end the violence.

"This is about citizen action, this is about neighborhood action."

• Clarence Williams contributed to this article.

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