The police force that patrols Camden saw its ranks swell, if only temporarily, Thursday night, as newly knighted members of the community swore to uphold their duties as honorary community peacekeepers.
Officers from the Camden County Police Department, which patrols only in the city, joined volunteers and city and county officials to hand out pretzels, flashlights, and T-shirts and hold small ceremonies for kids as they "knighted" them Blue Knights.
Police and city officials have been engaged in a community interaction campaign since the force was established in May 2013. Thursday night's event was aimed at rebranding the night before Halloween, officials said, known regionally as Mischief Night.
"No better night than Mischief Night for the Camden County Metro to redub it: Blue Night. We had a really good play on night and knight with a 'k,' ," said Scot N. McCray, the county freeholder who is liaison to the public safety department.
The goal, he said, was "to get the community more involved, to have them not only enjoy the night with their family, be able to walk around in this community . . . but to really have more stake in the game."
The rebranding campaign, which consisted of nine locations where police and volunteers set up folding tables and chairs to hand out the free food and small gifts, comes two decades after the city cracked down on a tradition of arson and vandalism on the night before Halloween.
Hundreds of fires were set in the 1980s and '90s; in 1991, fires were set at a rate of about one a minute, and dozens of buildings burned.
"It was a very, very scary night," said McCray, who was born and raised in the city.
Beginning the next year, the city flooded the streets with nearly every available officer, and the number of fires plummeted.
"This has not been an issue of late. There have not been concerns about this . . . I don't think that this has been an ongoing issue in recent years," said Howard Gillette, an emeritus history professor at Rutgers-Camden who studies the city's history.
Among today's youth, Gillette said, he believes there is not the same consciousness of Mischief Night as in the past.
Still, Mayor Dana L. Redd said, Thursday's events were aimed not just at preventing immediate crime but inspiring children.
By turning police officers into familiar faces, she said, the department hoped to have them be role models.
"We know the importance of selecting positive messages and positive images," said Redd, who hopes to make the event annual.
That would please Melvin Perry, 53, of the Whitman Park neighborhood, who stopped for pretzels and cookies with his youngest son.
"I wish we had more kids out here," Perry said, saying he enjoys seeing the small park get used and neighbors out in the community.
He said he'd noticed changes in the neighborhood since officers began patrolling the area on foot. As he walks to work at 11:30 at night, he said, he feels personally safer, especially as he lives in a "bad area" of Whitman Park, one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city.
For his 8-year-old son, Melvon, the free pretzels were a great snack before heading to watch football. Melvon, who ordinarily would be playing as running back or kicker, was sporting an orange cast on his right arm that would keep him benched Thursday night.
But as for being a "Blue Knight" to help watch over his community?
Sure, he said, he'd help out. He just wasn't quite sure what that meant.