A Beaufort teenager one day shy of his 15th birthday slid into the backseat of a patrol car midday Saturday.
Hands folded in his lap, Joshua Washington peered around the white Dodge Charger, its sides emblazoned with the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office shield. A second later, he stepped back out, joining his friends on the reddish dirt of the Burton Wells baseball diamond. There was a uniformed deputy approaching, and he could help the group settle a bet.
"Can a car have bulletproof tires?" Washington asked.
"It ain't rolling around in Afghanistan," the officer answered with a laugh. "I'm sure they make them, but we don't have them."
Washington and his two friends kept up the questions while they explored the rest of the car, testing the siren and learning about its special features. It was just the kind of exchange officers wanted when they attended the first Burton community picnic Saturday afternoon, hosted by the Beaufort County Ministerial Alliance in the hopes of building safer neighborhoods.
The Sheriff's Office had long noticed the habitual presence of street crime and drug use in Milledge Village and Possum Hill, Maj. Allen Horton said. About six months ago, a deputy decided to start a conversation with community leaders by visiting the pastor of Bethel Word and Worship Deliverance Temple in Beaufort.
The Rev. Arthur Cummings suggested a partnership with the ministerial alliance, which ran with the idea and planned Saturday's picnic.
"We just want to let people know we're in this together and we're trying to solve problems, not create problems," Cummings said. "It took off from there."
Shortly before 1 p.m., a few dozen people gathered on the bleachers of the Burton Wells Recreation Center to kick off the event with a prayer. Then, children bolted in all directions, some racing to the barbecue chicken and hot dogs, others to the moon bounces, horseshoes and patrol car.
Events like the picnic provide good opportunities for law enforcement and families to become more familiar with each other, said Cpl. Chelsea Seronka, who serves as a community resource officer in Beaufort County elementary schools. The younger in age children are when they interact with deputies in a positive way, the stronger bonds they can build, she said.
"At that age, it's the lights, the cars, the authority," Seronka said. "It's people they want to be, still."
Going forward, local ministers hope more deputies will seek out opportunities to talk directly with residents, such as conducting more patrols on foot or by bike, said the Rev. Sam Spain, president of the alliance.
"That way, they not only get a visual but they're able to stop and talk to people on their porches, groups of people congregating," Spain said. "To be a support to the community."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.