EDINBURG — Hundreds gathered at J.R. “Milo” Ponce Park in northeast Edinburg Tuesday evening for the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office’s 15th annual National Night Out.

Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra greeting guests at the sheriff’s office’s 15th annual National Night Out at J.R. “Milo” Ponce Park in Edinburg Tuesday evening. (Mathew Wilson | The Monitor)

National Night Out is a program geared toward fostering community-police relationships and heightening crime prevention awareness. Agencies across the nation host the events at the beginning of fall annually.

The location of Hidalgo County’s National Night Out is rotated between the county’s four precincts, and the event was last held at Milo Ponce Park four years ago.

Guests of the HCSO’s Night Out were greeted by lively music, free food, and representatives from a multitude of law enforcement agencies.

Some deputies drove cartloads of children around the park in a carnival train. Others helped kids run through a miniature SWAT obstacle course. Most simply milled about the park, chatting with each other and with members of the community they serve.

“We’ve got free food, we’ve got law enforcement agencies here from our federal partners, our state partners, and of course from our local partners. Of course, some of our first responders are also here, we’ve got fire departments, we’ve got EMTs and medics, and we’ve got all of our toys on display so the public can get to see them and just interact with law enforcement,” Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra said. “This is an event where the community comes together with law enforcement, it’s a community building event.”

Guerra says that fostering a good relationship with the community is imperative for him and his deputies.

“We can’t do our job without our community partners,” he said. “They’re our biggest partner. They are our eyes and ears, and when they see something, hear something or know something, they have to trust law enforcement with that information so they can give it to us and we can hopefully solve crime with it.”

Hidalgo County Precinct 4 Constable J.R. Gaitan, who spoke at the event, said that a good community partnership is particularly important in the semi-rural areas of northeast Edinburg.

“There’s various colonias here,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of traffic over here northeast of town, as far as illegal activities, stash houses that we continue working on a daily basis.”

Deputy Juan Dominguez helps 3-year-old Roman Zendejas, of Edinburg, through the miniature SWAT obstacle course at the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office’s 15th annual National Night Out at J.R. “Milo” Ponce Park in Edinburg Tuesday evening. (Mathew Wilson | The Monitor)

Gaitan said law enforcement wasn’t always received warmly in the area. In the past, officers driving into a colonia nearby Milo Ponce Park would be met by slamming doors and shuttering windows.

“Instead of being appreciative to us, we noticed, years ago, that they’d grab their kids and take them inside because it’s the police,” he said.

According to Gaitan, community building events put on by law enforcement like National Night Out and anti-bullying campaigns presented in local schools are helping to change that attitude.

“Last time that we were here for the National Night Out, I think it was four years ago, we talked to the parents about their concerns, and we told them what we were seeing,” he said. “We’ve seen a difference now with the families, and this is a bigger crowd than we saw four years ago. So something  is working out with us educating the public.”

Gaitan said a more positive perception of police officers is particularly evident in the area’s youth.

“We like to interact with the children,” he said. “I know that a little boy would see someone with a gun and a uniform and get scared, but now the majority, guess what they say? ‘I wanna be a policeman when I grow up’”