Dark blues and dark roasts: San Jose police joins league of cities offering ‘Coffee with a Cop’ to residents

Article from the San Jose Mercury News 10/16/15


San Jose police Officer Steven Aponte speaks with San Jose resident Kay Emerson at the police department’s inaugural "Coffee with a Cop"

San Jose police Officer Steven Aponte speaks with San Jose resident Kay Emerson at the police department’s inaugural “Coffee with a Cop” event at Roy’s Station in Japantown on Oct. 15, 2015. ( Robert Salonga )
SAN JOSE — For this particular police assignment, officers descended on Japantown in force, their bullet-proof vests firmly fastened and their sidearms secured.

Then they chatted. They played Battleship. They took selfies with residents.

And they drank coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

It was the San Jose Police Department’s inaugural foray into its incarnation of “Coffee with a Cop.” The rapidly expanding program sets up coffee gatherings between local residents, who are encouraged to take an any-questions-asked approach, and officers, who are encouraged to let their guard down to foster more personal relationships with the people they are charged with protecting.

“We don’t want people thinking we’re untouchable,” said SJPD Sgt. Rebecca Marquez, a city native who is spearheading the program with Officer Stella Cruz. “We want the uniform to disappear. We’re part of the community. We’re human beings.”

Marquez added that fostering those ties in a more casual setting — provided you can ignore the occasional squawk of a police radio — gains even more value in a political and media atmosphere where conversations about police and community tensions are unavoidable.

“You’re one bad video from losing years of a good relationship. When the bad blips hit, you want to have the support of someone saying, ‘I had coffee with that cop; there must be more to it.’ ”

San Jose becomes one of the largest cities to take part in the initiative; police in other Bay Area cities have been downing dark roasts with their denizens since the program started four years ago in the Southern California town of Hawthorne. The program now runs in more than 2,000 departments in the United States and seven other countries.

Incidentally, one of the co-founders is Sgt. Chris Cognac, an alum of San Jose State.

“Trust in law enforcement is one of the most pressing issues we have,” Cognac said. “This is the anti-town hall meeting. It doesn’t have to be about crime. Most people sit down and say something like, ‘Do you like the 49ers?’ ”

On Thursday morning, 30-year-old Tran Kageyama walked into Roy’s Station, the iconic Japantown coffee house hosting the inaugural coffee meetup, was taken a little by surprise but jelled quickly with the program. She sat down with Officer Tina Latendresse and said she asked about how the department was going to replenish its officer ranks after years of shrinking.

“I thought it was great,” Kageyama said. “You get to really talk to them. And express your gratitude.”

Elsewhere at Roy’s, veteran Officer David Goldfinger, who said he is soon approaching retirement, found himself talking with Marty Weidner, 66, and Weidner’s 4-year-old grandson, Finnegan. It was fair to say Finnegan consumed much of the interaction, enlisting Goldfinger’s help in playing Battleship against his grandfather in a scene that would easily fit in a Norman Rockwell gallery.

But it was also cutting edge: The two took a selfie together.

“More people have to have contact with the men and women who help keep us safe,” Weidner said. “You see these people as individuals.”

And for Goldfinger, a seasoned officer who has seen the best and worst of the city in over three decades in law enforcement, it’s almost a full-circle revelation.

“It’s a rejuvenating thing for me,” he said. “It gets back to the roots of why we’re doing what we’re doing, and how we felt when we started.”

Officer Steven Aponte, fresh out of the police academy, sees events like “Coffee with a Cop” as a harbinger of the kind of community policing that needs to be restored in a city where the concept was pioneered.

“Normally, we’re talking to people on the worst days of their lives,” Aponte said. “As a new officer always responding to calls for service, this is the kind of thing that recharges your batteries.”

The Police Department plans to rotate “Coffee with a Cop” among the city’s 10 districts.

Marquez, the sergeant leading the charge in San Jose, was heartened by the initial response and said she could feel barriers coming down.

“I’m so proud we brought this to the department,” she said.

Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.