Bayonne held its annual National Night Out festival on August 1, this time on Broadway instead of its usual location at 16th Street Park. “Pull over,” one kid commanded to a crowd off festival-goers through a police cruiser’s built-in megaphone. Police officers chaperoned kids through demonstrations of their vehicles. Parents took pictures of their kids on a police motorcycle, in an all-terrain buggy, and the fan favorite, the cruiser. “My name is Car-la,” another kid joked through the megaphone as he blared the sirens.
“I like to pretend I’m driving the car,” said Anaisha Melendez, 8 from the driver’s seat. Her mother, Debbie Diaz, said that she and her family were having a great time at the festival, which was completely free to the public, including bounce houses and food.
“It’s a good thing for the community to come together like this,” said Diaz. “Everything [the police] do in town is helping us come together.”
Her uncle, former Hudson County Sheriff and current Councilman Juan Perez, was standing near the popcorn stand across the street. “You want some? It’s all free,” he said, pointing to assembly lines of police officers handing out free hot dogs, popcorn, and plastic police helmets for kids.
Second Ward Councilman Sal Gullace was also touring the festival. “I love it. It’s even better that it’s in my ward,” he said. Gullace’s ward is fast becoming a center of civic activity in town. The festival was moved to Broadway because the central location is accessible for more people. Many moms and dads with kids in plastic police helmets were riding the light rail all evening.
“This is imperative for good police-community relations,” Perez said. “Look around, everyone is happy today. It helps us realize that you can approach a cop, and there’s nothing scary about it.”
Perez owes his former police career to community engagement initiatives. He decided to become a police officer when the NJ State Police hosted a Trooper Youth Week at Ferris High School in Jersey City when he was a junior at the school. “It was a tremendous experience,” he said. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be a cop.” Perez went on to serve as a NJ State Trooper for 26 years. “Now this is what I do,” he said, munching popcorn and greeting residents.
“Our goal will always be to protect and serve.” – Alexandra Arana
A new generation
Alexandra Arana, a Police Explorer who graduated from Bayonne High School this summer, stood on a Broadway crosswalk. A prospective police officer, she’ll begin studying criminal justice at St. Peter’s University in the fall. She said programs like the Explorers, National Night Out, and the Trooper Youth Week can help attract young talent for the right reasons. “This helps give another image, another side to police,” Arana said. “People need to see that.”
Her training is showing her the complexities of policing. The next generation of police officers will be expected to be emotionally intelligent as well as technologically savvy. Police departments are using new technologies to achieve this, such as virtual reality. Arana went through training that used a large screen to simulate real-world police situations, which was taught by experienced police officers.
“We are learning that police, like anyone, will do anything to protect themselves,” she said. “I got nervous [in the simulation training], but the officers explained how they get nervous, too, and we have to learn how to handle that.”
Policing is changing, as evidenced by police departments’ increased efforts to engage positively with communities and by next-generation training for young officers like Arana. “The next generation is always learning new things and advancing police technologies,” Arana said. “But our goal will always be to protect and serve.”
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @rory_louis.