Police officials: Reprised ‘coffee’ program aimed at bettering community relations

By Mike Isaacs, Niles Herald-Spectator
Original article HERE

If it seems of late that everywhere you go for a quick bite to eat, you run into a handful of Niles police officers, rest assured there’s nothing to fear.

In fact, that’s exactly the message Niles police officers want to send to the public with the department’s “Coffee with a Cop” program. The idea, said Cmdr. Robert Torabene, is to reach out to the community and to forge a positive relationship.

An installment of the program was held Aug. 25 at Panera Bread restaurant in Niles.

“This is the first gathering of this kind we’ve had in four years,” said Torabene, who attended the early morning Aug. 25 event. “We did it briefly before, but it wasn’t as well organized.”

Torabene said this time, the police department has scheduled gatherings through November. In addition to Panera Bread, several officers were scheduled to be available for visits at McDonald’s, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and other frequently visited venues on other dates.

Coffee with a Cop comes out of Police Chief Luis Tigera’s Crime Prevention Action Plan, an initiative calling for a new crime prevention bureau and with greater outreach to the public, according to Torabene.

“What we want to do is get out, talk to people, get to hear what issues they might have in the village and the community, what concerns they have, and just to make us a little bit more approachable,” he said.

Unsurprisingly to the four officers on hand Friday, it was a bit of a slow start. The officers had brief exchanges with a few customers and then a few more as the morning moved on. A couple of employees who worked nearby talked about their jobs.

The first gathering is always slower, the officers said, but the program will pick up as more people know about it.

Torabene said typical questions people have when they meet is about traffic tickets and whether this or that is a violation.

“The texting and cell phone thing in a vehicle is always a question,” he said. “People ask ‘when can I use my cell phone.'”

The true spirit behind Coffee with a Cop and similar projects is a greater commitment to community policing, which many police departments are undertaking now, Torabene said.

“We live in really trying times when it comes to people trusting law enforcement,” he said. “We want people to be willing to come to us when they need help.”

Sometimes, people are fearful of police, and that is especially true in an ethnically diverse community like Niles, police say. Torabene said he has seen a parent trying to get a child to eat his vegetables in a restaurant. If a police officer is there, he said, the parent has said you better eat your vegetables or I’ll have him lock you up.

“I’ll actually tell the parent you’re telling the child the exact opposite of what you will want him to do,” Torabene said. “If that child needs help, you’re telling him not to go to the police because he could be arrested for not eating his vegetables.”

Officer Gene Krause said it’s important to get the pulse of the community and understand the concerns that exist.

“It’s not smoke and mirrors,” he said about such initiatives. “There’s a lot of value to it. People have questions and we try to answer truthfully or get them answers if we don’t have them.”

Like the other officers, Sgt. Tony Scipione said police want to send a message to the public that police officers are accessible and ready to help.

“You turn on the news and you can see how police are viewed nowadays,” he said. “It’s partly our fault so we need to get back to the basics — talking with our citizens and saying, ‘hey, we’re real people too.'”

Officer Noe Hernandez is stationed in Niles schools this fall as the school resource officer, another part of the community outreach initiative. When things were a bit slow Friday, he went table to tables, introducing himself and passing out information about the Niles’ Citizens Police Academy, which will begin a new session soon.

“All of this is to help people become more comfortable with police,” he said. “We want the public to know we’re here to help.”

Future Coffee with a Cop dates can be found on the Niles website at www.vniles.com.