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Coming Together for Safety

National Night Out brings communities out to discuss safety, crime

It was a warm summer night, the perfect time to go for a walk to get some ice cream, run into some neighbors and watch children play in their favorite playground.

As part of the National Night Out on August 2, residents of the Kings Manor community in McLean gathered at their playground at the end of Red Coach Road for their annual ice cream social and community discussion of how their Neighborhood Watch program is serving them.

"The purpose of the National Night Out is to energize our local Neighborhood Watch programs, give the communities something to rally around and maybe recruit some new members," said Bud Walker, an information officer with the Fairfax County Police.

Neighborhood Watch is a community-patrolling organization made up of residents that each take turns walking or driving through their local neighborhoods, looking for anything that could be considered a crime or potential crime, Walker said. Since it began in 1984, it has grown to include several thousand communities across the country.

During the National Night Out, neighborhoods meet together to socialize and talk about the safety of their residents, Walker said. "Some have ice cream socials, some have street fairs, some simply ask neighbors to turn their porch lights on that evening or walk around the neighborhood," he said.

Representatives from the closest police stations try to attend events in their areas, he said, sometimes joined by the police chief or Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jerry Connolly. "Neighborhood Watch is a partnership between the police and citizens. In a low crime area it might even be more important to remind people not to become complacent. If you let one broken window stay unrepaired, you'll have a lot more but if you get it repaired quickly, you'll keep it from happening again," he said.

The police department relies on its resident counterparts to help serve the community better, Walker said. "We have over one million residents in Fairfax County and only 1,138 police officers. If we didn't have the help of the community, we couldn't do our job," he said.

In King Manor, that help comes from John Dukovich and his wife, Brenda Yu, the coordinators of the Neighborhood Watch in their community.

"We get together to talk about what's happened in the past year and what we can do to further prevent crime," Dukovich said.

Of the 300 homes in Kings Manor, about 100 people make up their Neighborhood Watch program.

"We ask people to pick a time that's convenient for them to patrol the neighborhood about three times a year," Yu said. "A patrol takes maybe 20 minutes to complete. We prefer the patrol to be staggered out so it's not all at the same time. The only other guideline we provide is that we ask them not to interfere if they see something happening but just call it in."

Most complaints are of vandalism-- cars have been broken into-- but the community as a whole is very safe, Dukovich said.

The yearly gathering "puts an emphasis on what we do," said Ellen Roller, a resident of Kings Manor for 35 years. "When we first started the patrols, we had three people on a time, so one could stay home and call in if something happened."

Signs posted at the entrance to the community that declare the presence of a Neighborhood Watch program help to keep would-be criminals out, Roller said.

"We understand that people see the signs and they're not apt to come in here because they know people are on patrol," she said. "People who live here take the patrol very seriously."

Having an officer visit the community and talk with the children helps them "see police as nice guys," she said.

As the mother of two young girls, Fara Damelin likes the safety of her neighborhood but keeps her house and car locked at all times just in case.

"This is a great neighborhood, there's a great sense of community here," she said while watching daughters Leah, 4 1/2, and Rebecca, 2 1/2, play on the playground.

"My husband and I like to do anything that goes on in the parks nearby because we think it's important to be as active in the community as possible," she said. "When neighbors get together, that's part of what makes this a nice place to live."

This was the first community event for Officer Vinnita Macri, an officer with the McLean station.

"We try to go around to the whole area and visit with most of the people and be a presence in the area," she said, handing out magnets with emergency phone numbers, coloring books, Frisbees and stickers.

"Most of these faces are not familiar because they're good, upstanding citizens," she said of the residents of Kings Manor. "Coming out here makes them more knowledgeable about what we do. Our main concern is for them to let us know if they see something suspicious. Sometimes it's nothing but it could be someone looking for a house to break in to."

There may not be a lot of crime in McLean, she said, but "the neighbors know best what's normal and what's not."

Meb Gordon and her family moved to McLean last year from San Francisco and said her new home is "much safer" than her old one.

"You always have to keep your eyes open," she said, which is why her husband signed up as a Neighborhood Watch patrol. "Our car was broken into and so was our neighbor's, but much to my chagrin I didn't call it in. The alarm went off and scared them away, but the police were upset we didn't report it."

Even in a safe neighborhood, "it's important to be involved in the area you live," Gordon said. "This is a nice place to raise kids and we want to make sure they can run down to the playground without having to be right on top of them all the time."

New neighbors Joe Hradisky and Christine Watson talked about being grateful for the chance to meet others who live close by but weren't familiar faces yet.

"Our neighbors keep an eye on everything," Hradisky said. "The woman who lives across the street knows when we go on vacation, she knows when the lights are supposed to be on, she keeps an eye on things for us. We watch out for each other."

"I moved here recently and I love it," Watson said. "Everyone's really friendly. I like living in an area where people want to help each other out however they can."