By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — Police officers put down their guns and handcuffs and picked up grill tongs and balloons Tuesday night as Manhattan celebrated National Night Out.
The nationwide annual event gives law enforcement a chance to mingle with the public in a relaxed setting. Precincts across the Upper West Side held outdoor parties featuring free food, DJs and face painting.
"This is the night where all across the country the police and the community come together to show we can stand up and fight against crime," said Sgt. Clyde Jones of the NYPD's Transit Bureau District One.
At Columbus Circle, the Central Park Precinct and NYPD Transit Bureau District One teamed up to serve free burgers and hotdogs to passers-by, including some puzzled tourists.
"We try to tell them what it's all about, but some of them don't get the concept," Jones said.
At Verdi Square at 72nd and Broadway, the 20th Precinct handed out certificates of appreciation to citizen volunteers while musician Sean Grissom, known as the "Cajun Cellist," serenaded the crowd.
"You take a look around, and there's so many different pieces of the community here," said Captain Christopher McCormack, the 20th Precinct's commanding officer. "For one day, everyone from the 20th Precinct comes together. It's very unusual."
At the 26th Precinct's celebration in Sakura Park at W. 122nd Street and Riverside Drive, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe led children in a round of "If You're Happy and You Know It" and a dance troupe performed a Michael Jackson tribute.
At W. 99th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, community members chowed down on free pizza while a clown made balloon animals for kids.
Deputy Inspector Kathleen O'Reilly, the 24th Precinct's commanding officer, said when National Night Out first started more than 20 years ago, it was meant to give kids in a crime-ridden city a safe place to play outside for one night.
Times have changed since then, O'Reilly said.
"Manhattan now is as safe as it's ever been and kids are playing in parks throughout the community, but National Night Out is still a way for us to interact with the community, especially the children."
The event was a hit with 12-year-old Zyan Walker of the Frederick Douglas Houses at W. 103rd and Amsterdam Avenue. Walker said she came in hopes of seeing a 24th Precinct police sergeant who visited her class recently, but he wasn't there.
She still had fun, though, because there was free pizza and a DJ, she said.
"I liked it," Walker said. "I like to dance, I liked to eat and I like to play games."