National Night Out returned to the Twin Cities with mixed reactions in a pivotal year for the future of policing.

The event typically promotes police-community partnerships, but in parts of Minneapolis, police were scarce and some parties called for the defunding of police. In other parts of the metro area, neighbors gathered with food, music and local members of law enforcement.

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, who attended a gathering at House of Hope Presbyterian Church, said he believes National Night Out is one of the most important events of the year, now more than ever.

"In St. Paul we've always known the importance of police-community relations. Relationships have to be the foundation of any legitimate police department throughout the country," Axtell said.

Minneapolis uniformed police, traditionally a mainstay of block parties organized by neighborhood watch groups, were absent from some gatherings, making appearances only on request. Police and crime were nevertheless top of mind for metro residents who came together over barbecue, ice cream and hugs despite a return of masking amid the spread of the delta variant. The air was festive on St. Paul's West Side, where children climbed on the playground at Parque de Castillo and families competed in a game of corn hole. Volunteers served food and passed out gun locks, a gesture that resonated with Maricella Thelen, a young mom who lost her brother in an accidental shooting last year. She said it was nice to see a steady stream of police officers conversing with people, giving out popsicles and playing soccer.

"They kind of visited like they usually do," Thelen said. "But this year they didn't ask for stage time … I think they understood that things were a little different this year."

The Bloomington Police Department estimated at least 10,000 people attended more than 300 parties throughout the city. A bomb squad exhibited robots at Redemption Lutheran Church, where hundreds of people mingled with police over live music and ice cream.

"With the pandemic, it's kind of had us all shut down," said the Rev. Joshua Parrish. "Now that things seem to be looking at least a little bit better, to be able to gather in this way, it's just so amazing."

In Minneapolis early Tuesday evening, activists trying to change the city charter and replace the Police Department with a Department of Public Safety held a rally at the Minneapolis teachers union headquarters.

Organizers with half a dozen activist organizations, including Black Visions Collective, TakeAction Minnesota and ISAIAH, encouraged attendees to disperse across the city and promote the Yes 4 Minneapolis ballot initiative at their own neighborhood gatherings. Several speakers framed the charter amendment as a tent large enough to unify those who want to abolish the police as well as those who want to reform the profession.

"When we think of the need for change, and the language toward public policy, please understand this is with the inclusion of the police department, working in concert with the community," said Kim Jones from the Barbershops and Black Congregation Cooperative, drawing cheers from a crowd of about 100. "We need the police, but we also need and want them to be held accountable to the community."

In the East Phillips neighborhood, 24-year-old Rose Gbadamassi, a Haitian immigrant, organized a cookout for her block. The neighbors across the street, who have a family band, played classic rock covers on the porch while children threw sticks for dogs.

Last summer, while fires raged on nearby Lake Street amid unrest after a police officer murdered George Floyd, residents barricaded several streets with cattle gates to deter hot-rodders as armed patrols canvassed the neighborhood in lieu of police.

Gbadamassi said she cares most about what happens right in front of her house, the cars that fly the wrong way down one-way S. 17th Avenue with no regard for the kids racing their scooters in the street. "In my opinion, you cannot have the police go," she said. "They still need the training, and the training should be with the neighborhood."