Coffee with a cop: Innovative way for police and citizens to bond
The woman’s hands were trembling when she walked through the door of the McDonald’s restaurant that morning.
“I don’t like cops,” she said in a conspiratorial voice to the blue-uniformed officer who greeted her.
Despite her trepidation, she had ventured out this morning because she had things to say. She had questions and concerns on her mind. And she needed to share those things with the very people she feared — law-enforcement officers.
By the time she left the McDonald’s that morning, after sitting and talking with Lt. Mike Beckmann over a cup of coffee for a half hour, she was laughing and joking. Her fears had been calmed. Her concerns had been addressed. Her questions had been answered.
And that’s exactly the kind of response for which Beckmann had hoped. It was the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office first foray into an unusual program — Coffee with a Cop — and it was going extremely well.
Beckmann had seen information about just such a program being started in other departments, and he believed it would work right here in Jacksonville.
A 30-year veteran with the JSO, community involvement has always been something he believed could improve policing. He’s also actively involved in the sheriff’s advisory council group — better known as ShAdCo.
So with the blessing of his supervisor, Beckmann contacted the police department that founded the program, Hawthorne (Calif.) Police Department. Coincidentally, they were flying to Gainesville to do training with the sheriff’s office there, so Beckmann jumped at the opportunity.
Nine JSO officers attended the all-day training and the next morning were happily chatting with customers at a McDonald’s restaurant on Atlantic Boulevard.
It was a hit from the first cup.
As officers and customers sat casually chatting at tables throughout McDonald’s during the two-hour get-together, it was a chance for everyday folks to get to know the law-enforcement officers who protect them.
Freddrick Lewis, who had just moved to Jacksonville from St. Paul, had specifically noted the date in his calendar as something he wanted to attend.
“I wanted to see from an officer’s perspective what they’re involved in,” he explained.
Throughout the morning, questions were offered and answered about neighborhood crime, policing techniques, the use of canine officers, safety tips and even about the Disney movie “Frozen.”
At one table, 4-year-old Haylie Valenzuela sat comfortably on the lap of Officer Carrie Hall discussing important kid-cop topics, such as “Frozen” and the correct placement of a JSO sticker on a Shopkins purse.
Suddenly, the little tow-head threw her arms around Hall’s neck and gave her a tight hug.
“I want to be a policeman,” she whispered.
“They help people.”
Smiling just as broadly was Robbie Williams, the Hawthorne Police Department sergeant who had conducted the training with the JSO officers just the day before.
Not only have Hawthorne trainers found that the program improves law enforcement’s relationship with the community, it also benefits officers.
“This is the reboot button for so many officers,” he said. “They’re really confronted with negative things all the time. But this reminds them why they became a cop.”
That’s crucial in a community like Jacksonville where the damaging combination of pervasive violence and a high murder rate can rupture the needed give-and-take between citizens and officers. Here the conversational divide can be vast, particularly between neighborhoods in crisis and patrolling officers who are expected to plunge directly into that turmoil.
The problem is exacerbated by a policing force spread too thinly across an enormous city whose boundary lines extend to the edge of the county.
We know establishing one-on-one relationships between officers and citizens helps. But in this sprawling city, there’s often too little time for the kind of on-the-street policing that allows officers to abandon their cars to walk neighborhood streets. The Coffee with a Cop program seems to provide just that kind of one-on-one interactions.
JSO Officer Stefanie Walker, who’s assigned to the Northside Safety Education Office, could see the positive connections being formed at McDonald’s that morning.
“I love this,” she said. “We don’t get a chance to just sit down normally and have an easy, breezy conversation with people.”
Kudos to Beckmann and the other officers behind the local Coffee with a Cop, a program they now plan to expand to other neighborhoods.
So when it comes your way, why not grab a cup?