Officers within the Suffolk County Police Department replaced their handguns and black shoes with Nerf blasters and orange “sky socks” Jan. 4 for a night of bouncy Nerf battles with local kids at Sky Zone Trampoline Park in Mount Sinai.
When the officers and kids weren’t crouched behind inflatable bunkers dodging foam darts, together they dodged balls in “dodge-a-cop” matches, shot basketballs and leaped into a giant pit full of foam cubes.
SCPD’s young friends were even invited to sit in the front and back seats of the patrol cars, were shown how to turn on the sirens and lights and were allowed to use the car’s PA speaker.
Donned Police Unity Night, the event will take place the first Wednesday of every month at 6 p.m. It started as a one-night dodgeball event over the summer by Sky Zone Director of Events Nicole Tumilowicz, as a way of showing support for SCPD and helping bridge the relationship between law enforcement and the people it serves.
It was such a big hit among the community, she said, she and her organization decided to host the event in collaboration with community liaison officers from the 3rd and 6th Precincts on a monthly basis in Mount Sinai. Events are also hosted with local police departments at the Sky Zone in Deer Park. Officers and their own children always jump for free, and each month the event will feature food donations from a different local business.
For $20, families poured into the popular indoor park for two hours of fun, community camaraderie and food — Brooklyn Bagels & Cafe of Rocky Point served sandwiches, bagels and cookies.
“This is our way of giving back and really getting involved,” Tumilowicz said. “We want to get the community together, have fun, increase police relations and give our guests a chance to interact with [the SCPD] on a different level and see them in a different light. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.”
Sixth Precinct Community Liaison Officer Casey Hines, a former social worker who frequently speaks on public safety at local school districts, and has partnered with Sky Zone in training its staff on what to do in dangerous situations, said it’s important to her that the public isn’t intimidated and guarded when it comes to interacting with the police.
She wants people to know their names and see them as people they can go to for help.
“When these kids have a problem or they have somebody bullying them or they just need somebody to talk to, I want them to feel they can say ‘you know, I’m gonna call Casey about this and see what she says,’” Hines said. “It’s wonderful to be able to have a rapport with the community in a positive environment.”
She’s also having fun.
“We’re jumping, and defenses are down [here],” she said. “The kids and parents know that we’re here to help them.”
Officer Todd Bradshaw, of the 6th Precinct’s Community Oriented Police Enforcement unit, echoed Hines’s feelings when reminiscing about the dodgeball event over the summer.
“I remember a few of the kids — one or two in particular — were really kind of nervous and taken aback by the fact that police were there playing dodgeball and bouncing with them,” he said. “But after a while, they saw us being goofy and loosening up, and then they felt comfortable smiling next to us and playing with us and then wailing dodgeballs at us. They realized we were approachable.”
Eufrasia Rodriguez, from Rocky Point, shared the Police Unity Night post on Facebook, and in doing so, wound up winning a free ticket for her son Justice, a 14-year-old boy with autism.
“I shared it because we have a charity called Justice 4 Autism and we figured this would be a great opportunity for kids to play with and meet the police,” Rodriguez said. “Justice was so excited to come and meet the police and jump. On our way here we heard police sirens and he was like ‘is that them?’”
Her son was quick to run up and take a picture with 6th Precinct Crime Section Officer Anthony Napolitano at the entrance.
“They’re all a bunch of good kids,” said Napolitano. “This means a lot to them; so hopefully it keeps them off the streets and inside.”
Cameron Tyburski, a 12-year-old from Shoreham-Wading River Middle School, came to the event with some of his classmates.
“It’s great because there’s free food and I showed some of the cops how to do front flips,” Tyburski said.
“I feel protected,” Amanda Lahey, 12, said.
Kelly Riess, 12, whose dad is a cop, said this was her second time at one of the events.
“It’s really fun, and it’s great to go around and meet the cops and all the families,” she said. “I think it’s a good idea to do this.”
To end the night, in Sky Zone’s largest trampoline-covered arena, Hines and fellow officer Jennifer Mackey led their team of kids into a full-fledged Nerf war against Napolitano and his own group. Bouncing back and forth between trampolines, taking cover and loading up on foam darts in between shots, Hines’s “red team” took the victory.
“You can’t walk out of here without a huge smile on your face and feel awesome, it’s just great,” Hines said. “There’s nothing like having these little kids running up to you and being like ‘I shot you’ or ‘you got me … can you play again?’ It’s them just being real with us, and I love it.”