Police officers are often shown in a negative light in the media. It is all too easy for us to make judgements and fall prey to the stereotypes about law enforcement.
For instance, if you were to walk into a coffee shop filled with police officers, it might make you feel unsettled. You’d immediately start wondering: Why are they here? What’s going on? Did something bad happen?
On national Coffee with a Cop day, people all over the country ask themselves these questions. Once a year, coffee shops across the U.S. open their doors to local police departments.
Police officers from the Costa Mesa Police Department (2016 city population: 112,822) meet in a local Starbucks and get to know the city’s residents. One officer bends down to talk to a child while another laughs with a barista as he orders his drink. The officers stand with relaxed shoulders and smiles on their faces. Members of the local community mill about the coffee shop, chatting with officers about topics ranging from traffic issues to their favorite football teams. There are no agendas, distractions, conflicts, or judgements -- just open conversations over a cup of coffee.
Officers simply want to be liked and treated like normal people, rather than being feared. We often forget that cops are people too, and that the majority of them simply want to protect and serve our communities. Coffee with a Cop is a program that was started by the Hawthorne Police Department (2016 population: 88,031) in 2011 to remind people of this fact.
During the event, one officer comments, “there are times when people don’t want us there for certain calls, but overall our community is very supportive of what we’re doing.”
Captain Michael Ishii of the Hawthorne PD is a co-founder of Coffee with a Cop who now serves as an administrator for the program. He says:
“We made a conscious effort to find ways to reach out, communicate, build trust and talk with the community members that we serve ... We didn’t have a name for [the program], and we just went into a McDonald’s and started talking to people. What we quickly realized was there was a big gap between the regular community members wanting to talk to officers, because there are a lot of barriers. There’s the uniform; you’re not used to talking to cops; the only time you see cops is if you’re getting a ticket or something bad. Even if they are there, sometimes they’re not as approachable.”
Other departments began to follow in Hawthorne PD's footsteps, hosting their own Coffee with a Cop events. The program would go on to catch the attention of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a Department of Justice program committed to advancing community policing across the nation by providing resources and grants to departments for developing their own community policing programs. COPS gave the Hawthorne PD a grant to develop a curriculum on how to put on a successful Coffee with a Cop event and to teach the program to other police departments. With the help of this grant, Coffee with a Cop began to reach communities throughout the country.
By interacting with community members in a relaxed atmosphere, officers are able to build relationships and bridge the gap between the community and the police force. There are no boundaries during Coffee with a Cop events. Residents are encouraged to talk about anything that’s on their mind, which is part of the reason that Captain Ishii believes the program is so successful.
These casual, open conversations also help break down some of the negative stereotypes that the public holds about law enforcement. Ishii notes, “The community sees these types of relationships as a benefit, because all they saw before were the negative things that police do on TV. But now, they can put a face to an officer that patrols the area and go, ‘I know that officer and that’s not how we see our local police force.’”
Not only does the program have a positive impact on local residents, but it has also had unintended impacts on the officers that participate as well. Ishii comments, “For our cops that are constantly placed in difficult situations -- meaning criminals, negative media, and all of those things -- it’s been a transformation for many of the officers that attend. They say, ‘this has really helped me and brought us back to the original reason of why we became police officers.’ And that’s to help people and help the community.”
Coffee with a Cop has become extremely successful, operating year round in all 50 states, along with 15 other countries. There have been over 10,000 Coffee with a Cop events worldwide since 2011.
Programs like Coffee with a Cop are part of what is known as “community policing.” Community-based policing is a system that focuses on building relationships between police officers and members of the community. In order to foster these connections, officers are assigned to a certain location, rather than being rotated from place to place.
This is not a machine. It’s a human being who bleeds just like you do and who has a personality, has kids, and he’s a jokester.
Thomas Knowles previously worked with law enforcement in over 50 countries as a military police investigator, police officer, FBI agent and supervisor. Knowles believes that community policing is important for creating positive relationships within the community. During his time as a police officer for the Fresno Police Department (2016 population: 522,053), Knowles was expected to get to know the local residents and foster connections. He recalls:
“When you have spare time, they expect for your car to be parked and for you to be out walking around your business district, walking into stores, introducing yourself, giving them business cards, and letting [residents] know that there’s not a robot in that patrol car. This is not a machine. It’s a human being who bleeds just like you do and who has a personality, has kids, and he’s a jokester. It’s all of those things that people need to understand versus just this uniform.”
It is much harder to blindly label all cops as “bad” or “malicious” once you’ve gotten to know a local police officer and seen what actions they are taking to protect the community. Knowles comments, “that’s the sad part, because all they see is that uniform; they don’t see the face behind it … There’s got to be interaction between law enforcement and the community.”
Some of the nation’s largest cities like New York City (2016 population: 8.538 million) have implemented community policing to build relationships and combat crime. The New York Police Department (NYPD) calls their initiative a neighborhood policing program, in which officers are assigned to patrol the same neighborhood on every shift. This has created consistency for both residents and officers.
NYPD officers go through the Neighborhood Policing Program, which trains them on building relationships, de-escalating conflicts and communicating effectively with local residents. The training includes attention to small details that can make a big difference, like the officer’s posture, attitude and tone of voice.
In 2017, New York City experienced its lowest per-capita murder rate in nearly 70 years. The city also saw reductions in other crimes, including robberies, burglaries and shootings. While these decreases in crime can’t be attributed solely to community policing efforts, many believe that the program has had positive contributions when it comes to reducing crime.
One aspect of community policing that is used in police departments across the country is the Citizen’s Police Academy. The academy is open to members of the community, and it is a great way to get to know local law enforcement and how the department operates. Academy participants meet once a week with members of the department to learn about various topics, ranging from traffic enforcement to crime scene investigation to neighborhood watch. The program provides a hands on opportunity to live a day in the life of a police officer.
The Laguna Beach Police Department (2016 population: 23,190) hosts a 12 week Citizen’s Police Academy that has become very successful within the community. The academy has had over 500 participants since it began in 1998. Jim Beres, the Civilian Services Administrator for the Laguna Beach PD, says, “showing Citizen’s Academy participants the actual daily functions of a police officer, what they actually deal with, is eye opening for many people.”
Officer Ross Fallah serves as the coordinator for the LBPD Citizen’s Academy. He first became involved with the academy after participating as a civilian back in 2001. According to Officer Fallah, graduates of the program “become our ambassadors and our voice, because they walk [into the academy] with assumptions. Once those assumptions are disproven and shown to them, they change their minds.”
The academy has become so popular within the community that most participants join after hearing about it through word of mouth. Fallah says that the majority of participants look for ways to stay involved with the police department even after the academy has ended. The program strengthens ties between the community and local law enforcement.
The LBPD gets involved with the community in many different ways. Whether it’s a Coffee with a Cop event or a neighborhood watch meeting, the department is always looking for ways to foster connections. Building relationships between residents and police officers not only dispels some of the misconceptions about law enforcement, but it can also make the community safer. Beres notes:
“We do extensive ongoing community outreach to make sure that we have those lines of communication open with our residents, business owners, and visitors in town. It’s good too, because we want people to feel comfortable speaking to us. That’s how we find out about a lot of crime going on in the community. Someone we’ve met in a community meeting maybe didn’t feel comfortable talking to law enforcement for whatever reason. But now they do because of that contact, so they might make an anonymous phone call saying ‘I wanted to let you know what’s going on at this house.’ We wouldn’t have known that, but now we can address that problem for the benefit of the community.”
The LBPD also stays connected with residents virtually through social media. These social media accounts make the department more approachable and also keep the community up-to-date on what the department is doing in the community. Beres says these accounts “change the perception by trying to debunk some of the myths and misconceptions that are out there by showing what the officers do in a typical day. I think we’re having some success with that.”
The department has even experienced an increase in both the number and quality of applicants for open police officer positions as a result of these social media efforts. According to Beres many applicants applied to the Laguna Beach Police Department because of their social media presence, making comments like, “I’ve been following you guys on Facebook and Instagram, and that’s a department I want to work at, and I’d be proud to pin on my uniform.”
While it’s true that the majority of police officers are here to serve and protect, there is no denying that there are some negative police encounters. This is not some dirty secret that the police force denies. The officers interviewed for this article were open to having a conversation about these encounters. Knowles comments:
“You turn on the TV, and you see two, three, or even half a dozen shootings over a period of a year or two, and those are powerful. Even though you’ve probably had over a million calls for police service during that same period in which cops haven’t used their guns. When people see that, it’s like these cops are out of control. I can’t blame people for feeling that way.”
Captain Ishii has noticed a change in the public’s perception of officers during his time in the profession. He says, “It’s changed for the negative because of the constant negative instances that are covered in the media. The intense scrutiny causes people to start to have a different vision of what they think of what police departments do.”
Thanks to today’s high tech, fast-paced culture, police encounters can go viral in seconds, whether it’s a Facebook post or live video stream. The problem with these videos is that they don’t tell the whole story. Beres points out, “there’s no context to it. The viewer is simply seeing the video stream. You don’t know what preceded it; you don’t know all the details; you don’t know what’s in the officers head and what that officer knows … maybe that person in the driver’s seat is a wanted criminal or a member of a street gang, and the officer knew that.”
It is easy for the public to see only the negative instances involving officers and to make generalizations about the entire police force. This is where community policing comes in; it allows police departments to show their communities that those negative encounters are not the norm.
Captain Ishii believes that Coffee with a Cop is vital for breaking down those beliefs. He notes that the program “puts a face to the local officers that is very different from what you see on TV. Through one cup, one relationship, and one conversation at a time, we’re able to build on the positive interaction, rather than just the negative ones that people always see.”
So what can we do to prevent those negative police encounters in the first place?
Yet, because of the training you got, you knew what was right and what was wrong.
Knowles believes it’s a matter of training. As of 2017, there were 24 states across the country that allowed officers to begin working on the streets prior to receiving basic training. This means that some officers are involved in high stress encounters without any training on how to handle and de-escalate these situations. This lack of training is often what leads to unnecessary use of force.
When Knowles became a police officer in Fresno, California, he went through the training mandated by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). POST sets minimum standards and training requirements that are necessary to become a police officer in the state of California. Knowles recalls his time on the police force: “The area was so violent back then, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to pull the trigger. It just means that you’re ready if you have to pull the trigger if a situation does come up. Yet, because of the training you got, you knew what was right and what was wrong.”
The training process for officers at the LBPD is very rigorous. An officer is not deemed ready to work independently without supervision until about two years after their initial application. Beres says that the department provides training on a wide variety of topics outside of traditional officer training, such as mental health disorders, implicit bias training and sexual harassment prevention. These sessions take place throughout the year in order to keep officers up-to-date on their training. Officers and other department employees may be required to undergo additional training if they exhibit a pattern of mistakes or weaknesses on the job.
While California has POST, not all states have standardized training requirements. This can create inconsistencies in the training that different officers receive. By increasing the rigor and amount of training that is required to become an officer nationwide, we can reduce the number of negative and violent police encounters.
There are several ways to engage with your local police officers and get involved. Whether you have a concern, question or simply want to get to know your local cops, just know that you can. Police departments are here to serve our communities, and they want your voices to be heard. Here is a list of some easy ways to get involved:
1) Attend a local Coffee with a Cop event
Coffee with a Cop events take place every day, all over the country. To find an event in your area, head over to the program’s events page.
2) Stop by your police department’s open house
Many police departments will put on an annual open house. These events are a great opportunity to meet your local officers, tour the department and learn about what initiatives are taking place in your community.
3) Enroll in a citizens’ police academy
The Citizen’s Police Academy gives local residents an even closer look at what it is like to be a police officer. The academy is a great opportunity to better understand how the officers are working to protect your community. If your city offers this program, it will usually be listed on the police department website.
4) Join the neighborhood watch
Help protect your community by joining the neighborhood watch and alerting the authorities to any suspicious activity you see on your block. You can find a watch group in your area here.
5) Bring your kids to local events sponsored by the department
Police departments often put on kid-friendly events to bring the neighborhood together and engage with the community in a casual atmosphere. One popular event that many departments sponsor is an annual bike rodeo. At the rodeo, children learn about bike safety and get the chance to ride through a bike obstacle course. Events like these are typically advertised on the department’s website and social media pages.