Attempts to cool the tensions between police and the communities they serve have led some people to look for solutions in a hot cup of coffee.
After the recent killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police and the fatal shooting of five Dallas cops by a sniper, the gap between officers and communities of color can seem unbridgeable. But a sergeant in a small police department near Los Angeles says he’s found tremendous success with a simple formula: having cops talk with members of the public over coffee in neutral settings.
“Coffee is the mechanism. It’s the conversation that starts as a result of the coffee,” said Chris Cognac of the Hawthorne Police Department. “There’s nothing more important than this. People need to sit down, take a breath and listen to each other. We all want the same thing.”
Cognac co-founded “Coffee with a Cop” in 2011, and the program has been picked up by hundreds of police and sheriff’s departments around the country. There’s typically a spike in interest in the program after disputed killings, he said, including the recent deaths in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Dallas.
The events aren’t formal, and don’t take much work to set up. Police schedule a Coffee with a Cop in a neutral place like a McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. People get a free cup of coffee and the chance to talk with officers and detectives.
Opportunities to connect with law enforcement in a relaxed setting don’t happen very often, and many people only interact with cops during a confrontation or to report a crime. Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former Baltimore officer, said that Coffee with a Cop reminds police that they need more regular contact with civilians.
“It’s such a basic fundamental element of policing, but many cities don’t do that,” said Moskos. “You shouldn’t need a program to discuss things over a coffee, but this shows that police departments are willing to make some steps.”
Cops participating in the coffee klatches are often rank-and-file officers who work in the neighborhood where the event is being held. Some people want to talk about deep issues like Black Lives Matter, but often times attendees simply want help with neighborhood problems, like a series of car break-ins.
“It’s not a briefing. It’s an intimate setting. There’s no speeches,” said Cognac.
Simply put, the goal is to make police and civilians more comfortable with one another. That trust can pay dividends when a shooting or other crisis tests the strength of law enforcement’s relationship with the public.
The events were part of a package of reforms in a city in eastern Washington state, after the Department of Justice investigated police there last year for fatally shooting a homeless man who’d been throwing rocks.
The killing of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Washington, was likened to a“Ferguson moment” for Latinos. Pasco Police Capt. Ken Roske was skeptical that Coffee with a Cop would make a difference, but recognized that the department needed a new approach to community policing in the predominantly Latino city.
“People are calling us names, but we knew we had a community that we had to continue to provide services to,” said Roske. “We could either put the brick wall up and say ‘we’ve done all we could do,’ or we could be open to see what else could we do”
Tensions are lower now, Roske said, and Coffee with a Cop has been an important part of the police force’s effort to better engage with the public.
Even one critic who’s upset that no charges were filed against the Pasco officers in the Zambrano-Montes case said the department has improved its standing with the community.
“The value really comes because it’s like old-school police. Police who used to walk the beat, would know the people in their communities,” said Rick Rios of Consejo Latino, a group calling for police reform. “They had a public relations problem, so they had to make some kind of an effort.”
But don’t think of Coffee with a Cop as a program for small towns with little crime, Cognac said. Police departments in big cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Boston and Montreal participate. Officers can enroll in a six-hour training before their first meeting, or download information from the Coffee with a Cop website.
Casual conversations can’t fix every issue, and Cognac admits they won’t bring down crime statistics. But they can start to change the relationship between officers and locals.
“You can’t measure the impact,” said Cognac. “The only way you can measure the impact is when there’s a critical incident and people come forward to defend you. This is the only program that heals.”