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Hundreds of residents showed up to National Night Out events in Palo Alto on Tuesday to reconnect with the community after the pandemic forced the annual gathering to go on a hiatus.

National Night Out, an annual nationwide event, aims to connect community members to local law enforcement with the hopes of building neighborhood camaraderie, according to the National Night Out website.

At the flagship event outside the Palo Alto Police Department at 275 Forest Ave., officers and first responders stressed the importance of building and maintaining strong community relations.

“(We wanted to) get back out into the public and let the public have an opportunity to connect with us because it has been so long … we just wanted to get back out again,” said Officer Eric Jensen, the lead organizer of the event. After the two-year hiatus, this National Night Out event served to reconnect the community and the police.

The celebration, similar to previous National Night Out gatherings, featured various first responders and police cars on display. There also was a live snake, courtesy of the Police Department’s animal control division. Although there were many similarities to the 2019 celebration, the outside influences on the event and the department were very different.

The country has dealt with the pandemic and nationwide protests surrounding police brutality in the three years since the last National Night Out event hosted by local police. Palo Alto police and many law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. were forced to have a reckoning on their relationship with the community.

“(The Black Lives Matter protests) showed that we have a lot of work to do, and the timing was bad because we needed to get out more and yet we were hampered by (the pandemic),” Jensen said.

Despite the hurdles Palo Alto police has had to clear over the past few years, many government officials, including Mayor Pat Burt, are hopeful of the future of police-community relations in Palo Alto.

“This sort of event is a way that we improve those relations and it really comes down to people understanding that our police and fire are here all the time and not just when something bad happens,” Burt said.

A few blocks down the street at Channing House retirement community, many older adults, as well as local community members, shared books, talked about their old cars and danced to the music performed by residents at their National Night Out event. This occasion, the first time Channing House had hosted a National Night Out celebration in 10 years, was particularly important for seniors, a group that was hit hard during the pandemic.

“We’ve been holed up for a long time and protecting ourselves and we’re ready to get out and be in the community,” said Rhonda Bekkedahl, CEO of Channing House.

For Channing House, Palo Alto police and other neighborhoods across Palo Alto, Tuesday marked an important day in the fight against the pandemic. Despite the ongoing nature of the pandemic, many felt that it was necessary to show neighborhood camaraderie after a rough couple of years.

“All of us — whether it’s us, as the government, or the public — are feeling a little more comfortable getting out and getting face-to-face,” Jensen said.

This article was originally published by Palo Alto Online.

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