Lights! Camera! Better interactions?

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Sema Allen, 4, strikes a pose worthy of the Oscar red carpet during the 39th District's movie night. JOSEPH KACZMAREK / FOR THE DAILY NEWS

AT FIRST, the commotion in front of the old police district's front walls attracted some stares.

Then drivers pulled over and started taking pictures with their phones. Some marched up to police officers who were standing around and peppered them with questions.

And then the damnedest thing happened: People started smiling. Laughing. Might even have done a little clapping, too.

Velvet ropes, a red carpet and balloons hugged the entrance to Olney's 35th District headquarters — in honor of a movie night for dozens of excited local kids.

The scene, which played out on a Saturday night in April, has been repeated in other police districts in the city as part of a concerted effort to rebuild the relationship between cops and the communities they serve.

"It's nice. They need to bridge that gap, especially with the kids," said Sherrie Hall, who brought her 9-year-old daughter, Kyla Gordon, to a 14th District movie night Friday in Cedarbrook.

"A lot of kids are scared of police, but getting to know them like this will help with that."

Police officials would argue that the department always has organized positive neighborhood events like this but rarely gets any press for it.

Other observers might contend that a feel-good get-together here and there doesn't cancel out the controversial shootings and uses of force that have dogged police departments from Philadelphia to Baltimore to, most recently, McKinney, Texas.

But here's the thing: Countless words have been written about the problems at the root of those episodes and the need for systemic reforms.

It's worth looking at what happens when police officers and community members try to move forward, even a little bit, together.

A Disney flick

At the 35th District's movie night, interim Capt. Deshawn Beaufort barely recognized his roll-call room. About 50 kids, ages 7 to 17, filled the normally staid space, their voices and bursts of laughter bouncing off the walls.

A screen lit up with the action from Disney's "Big Hero 6," and little hands were filled with popcorn, brownies and other treats.

"It really made my day," Beaufort said. "My son's a little older, so I haven't had that interaction for a while, with little kids running up and down, dropping cupcakes and having fun. It was really, really nice."

Beaufort figured he was in for a memorable night when motorists parked in front of the district's headquarters, at Broad Street and Champlost Avenue, and stared wide-eyed at the red carpet and velvet ropes.

"We had adults stopping to take pictures and just say, 'Wow, I've never seen this before,'" he said. "It was nice, as opposed to people stopping and yelling curse words at you."

Beaufort credited the evening's success to Community Relations Officer Deirdre Still and Inspector Anthony Washington, who came up with the idea of hosting movie nights in districts across Northwest Philly.

Still only recently took on the community-relations job; the vast majority of her 12-year career was spent working on a narcotics-enforcement team.

She canvassed the area for kids to invite. Started with some who'd been bullied at local schools, then added Cub Scouts and just about anyone else she came across, including a boy who was raking leaves for his mother.

"We have to try to rebuild that rapport with the community. Show them we're human, we have families and we like to do fun things," Still said.

Volunteers poured in. Local businesses donated food, and off-duty cops came in to lend a hand. Before the night was over, Still had a waiting list of kids who wanted to attend the next one, which likely will be in July.

"The energy was electric. Everybody had a smile on their face," Still said.

"If we can make this go citywide, and have them more often, we can build positive relationships and restore that trust."

Shooting hoops

In early May, other cops took to the hardwood, playing against teens and young adults at the James Wright Recreation Center, on Haverford Avenue near 34th Street in Mantua. The basketball games were organized by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

The youths seemed to like mixing it up with the cops, making 16th District Capt. Altovise Love-Craighead think the next one needs to be bigger, better.

Like the other members of the Police Department who spoke to the Daily News, Love-Craighead is also realistic. She knows that one night of good vibes won't permanently resolve the complicated issues law-enforcement agencies are wrestling with across the country.

"Police aren't always seen in a good light," she said. "It's not just that people see us as bad people, but that something has to be wrong if we're around. We need to change that mindset."

Love-Craighead said she has officers who buy into the idea that the district is more than just a place where they work. She said residents also aren't shy about telling cops what's going on, good or bad.

(To that end, she was dismayed to learn that a man was shot about two blocks away from the rec center about an hour after the basketball games wrapped up. The case is still unsolved.)

Transfixed by Baymax

At the 14th District's movie night, held at the sprawling Dorothy Emanuel Recreation Center on Pickering Avenue near Gowen, a few mothers leaned against a cinderblock wall while their tots sat inside a nearby room, transfixed by Baymax, the inflatable, scene-stealing hero of "Big Hero 6."

Tiaisha Hall said her 7-year-old son, Mu'adh, was excited when he found out about the event from a flier at school.

"I would love to see more things like this," she said. "It's good for children to see police officers in a different light, given all the things we see on TV.

"They're not always putting people in handcuffs. There's a good side to them."

Jackie Whitters, who was volunteering with a Girl Scout group, reflected on her 61 years in the city.

"I lived through the Rizzo years, when they were putting people up against walls and stuff like that," she said. "It got better, and then it got bad again."

Whitters said the community events could prove worthwhile over the long haul, assuming that everyone wants to do more than just pay lip service to the idea of change.

"Anything worth it takes time," she said. "If they want this to succeed, they have to keep at it."


On Twitter: @dgambacorta