ONE CUP AT A TIME
Article written by Captain Keith Kauffman and was submitted to the recently created Taskforce for 21st Century Policing. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/12/18/fact-sheet-task-force-21st-century-policing
I immediately profiled the man as he walked through the door. My 21 years of policing were drawn to the subtleties of his exaggerated gait and the story told in the gaze of his hardened face focused on my uniform. The fading ink on his neck just visible above the collar and the choice and fit of his clothing further heightened my awareness, harkening back to a time 17 years prior when similar observations and the subsequent incident that followed gave me that extra fraction of a second and the gift of a long career. In the second or two it took me to compile the data, he had done the same; hair, eyes, fit of the uniform, hash marks on the sleeve, medals, bars on the collar. Few people in America realize that good cops and good criminals rarely, if ever, rely on race to profile one another.
“Hey Captain, I thought I’d bring my 4-year-old daughter in to meet a policeman.” We shook hands and then both smiled when our community affairs dog Scottie picked up a teddy bear out of his goodie box and delivered it to the awestruck girl. The difference today was that we were not meeting on the streets, but rather inside a McDonald’s during our Coffee with a Cop event. A few minutes later he waved me over and I could sense the reservation and hesitation in his voice as he asked if it would be okay to take a picture of his daughter and I together, classifying his request with, “she really loves the police.”
Removing the barriers, eliminating the agenda, and meeting on mutual turf is why the Coffee with a Cop concept works. Community engagement and dialogue must be mutual. Law enforcement has got it wrong for so many years. Town hall meetings, community events, invitations to the police station, the pancake breakfast at the church, council meetings, and neighborhood watch meetings all have one thing in common; the same people attend them. Our community stakeholders are some of our most valuable assets, but we already know who they are and by and large, they already support the police. Law enforcement needs to focus our attention on the 90 percent of people in our communities that don’t have regular police contact and who have framed their perception of our agency or officers based on things they have heard from friends or seen in the media. That 90 percent do not get stopped and rarely ever call. When asked specifically about their contact with the police, many will have to go back years to that one time when they got pulled over. That’s why every contact we make counts. That simple wave and smile, or gesture of opening a door may be the only thing a person can go by when forming their personal opinion of law enforcement. Let’s face it, most people don’t have a couple of hours to kill at a town hall meeting and even if they do go, most aren’t willing to voice their concern or ask their question in front the group. But if I meet up with you on your terms, at your local cafe, and ease into the conversation while offering up a cup of coffee, we might just get somewhere meaningful in just a couple of minutes. Forget about anyone’s agenda and let’s talk about the weather, football, hobbies, our children, or whatever else pops up. Build the relationship instead of focusing on a topic. Real community members talking with their local line level law enforcement officers, learning what’s actually behind the badge, and building trust along the way; one cup at a time.
The Coffee with a Cop Concept
In 2011, the Hawthorne Police Department in Los Angeles, CA, had a renewed focus on community oriented policing, and the result was a restructuring of personnel and resources. The creation of a Special Operations Bureau centered around the Community Affairs Unit was the formula of our success. Our officers were sent out with couple of general directives: No more Band Aids on problems, and “put us on the map” by sharing ideas and working with our partners in law enforcement. Sergeant Chris Cognac was put in charge of the community affairs unit, and he selected Detective John Dixon following an internal interview process. Detective Dixon talked about finding a way to mitigate the tensions between our community and our police department. His idea was to go directly to the people and sit down with them for a few minutes over coffee. He and Chris recruited the manager of a local McDonald’s, and we held our first Coffee with a Cop. It started off a bit slow and I remember sitting there alone at a table and thinking, “this isn’t working too well.” Finally realizing that the uniform is a natural barrier, we started moving around the restaurant, serving coffee and sitting and chatting with the community. The response was phenomenal and we slowly learned from our mistakes and started to figure out how to make it work better.
Sgt. Cognac wrote an article on the concept that was published in a Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (DOJ COPS) newsletter, The Dispatch, and our phones starting ringing off the hook with other agencies wanting information on how to host their own Coffee with a Cop. We partnered up with the Center for Public Safety and Justice at the University of Illinois with the vision of developing a curriculum and teaching the program to law enforcement agencies across the country. The COPS office funded the grant for nearly $400,000 and the concept was taken nationally, taking us to ten different regions in the United States where we trained hundreds of law enforcement officials.
In less than two years over 1000 agencies have hosted events and those are only the ones we know about that have registered their event on www.coffeewithacop.com . Almost every agency that starts the program continues to host events with regularity within their communities, putting the impact of positive police community contacts in the hundreds of thousands. Here is a snapshot of just those agencies that have reported their events on the website:
Community Engagement and Dialog
By travelling the United States and watching these events unfold in all different types of communities, we have learned some valuable lessons. First, the diversity of agencies and their policing styles is America’s unique strength. In general, law enforcement is the same everywhere, but each agency has adapted their culture to best fit their community. If we could share that institutional knowledge from agency to agency, state to state, we would all benefit from understanding how to positively affect the slightly different needs each community has that go beyond mere safety and security. Second, an amazing side effect of Coffee with a Cop materialized when we began to see a positive change in the attitude of line level police officers and deputies. They need it just as much as the community does. I’ve seen firsthand how powerful it can be when we allow our officers to speak with people after we have removed the barriers of the radio call, police car, police station, or agenda. It helps every one of us remember why we put the badge on in the first place. I will be the first to admit that we have failed our police officers and deputies by exposing them to countless negative contacts, call after call, shift after shift, and year after year. It’s no wonder some see policing as an “us versus them” game whose main focus is the potential to end in a deadly conflict. I want to be perfectly clear in stating that I believe it is crucial for law enforcement leaders to consider creating an environment without barriers and the stresses of day to day policing where officers can speak candidly to the real members of the community, and build relationships that earn trust, ultimately resulting in problem solving. This is the only way for an agency to see an organizational transformation into a truly community oriented policing philosophy.
Recommendations and Conclusion
The Coffee with a Cop concept sounds so simple. Show up at a restaurant or café, serve your citizens some coffee, and talk about anything that comes up. The challenge is that you would be surprised how difficult that can be for many police officers. Training is needed to deprogram the need to stand in a position of advantage, use a demeanor focused on command presence, or only talk about ‘the facts’. I’ve witnessed a 10-year veteran be completely terrified about just walking up to a nice couple seated in a booth at a local Cracker Barrel because he didn’t know what to say. It may sound ridiculous but it is an ugly truth that lurks in American policing because of how we are taught and trained from day one. If the importance of community relations with the police is not trained and taught from the beginning in our academies and department training programs, we will continue to fight an uphill battle, especially when many agencies decide to mend relations and focus on building trust only after tragedy has already struck. American law enforcement is based on policing citizens that are willing to accept the authority of the badge. Law enforcement must rely on the American people as the force multiplier for the good, moral and just. We must train our new officers on the importance of positive community contacts and strategies like Coffee with a Cop to build relationships and trust. Law enforcement leaders need to ensure we spend some time creating an environment without barriers where this positive community engagement and dialog can occur rather than allowing an officer to go from call to call for years at a time.
“Of course we you can take a picture of us,” I told the girl’s father. I don’t know what he did with it and I don’t really care. What I care about it setting up the next generation of police officers and community members for success. We have to sit down face to face, be transparent and speak the truth in more than 144 characters. It has taken a long time for me to realize that the irrational negativity displayed by certain people is because of the badge and uniform and not the person. Law enforcement spends the majority of its time on the criminal element in society and I applaud our men and women who put themselves into harm’s way daily to protect the innocent and bring the lawbreakers to justice. One part of the future of 21st century policing should be to devote more time to the community members we don’t know, who don’t break the law, and create an environment that will allow our line level officers to build relationships and trust, even if we do it one cup at a time.
For Police Officers
Coffee with a Cop gives you opportunities, outside of crisis situations, to relax and chat with residents in the community you serve.Get Involved
For Community Members
Coffee with a Cop events provide access and opportunity for distraction-free conversations with your local police officers.Get Involved