HPD balance tough year with acclaimed "Coffee With a Cop" and youth hockey

This article was published in the December 22, 2013 issue of The Dailybreeze newspaper

By Dailybreeze reporter Sandy Mazza

Axel Koester / For the Daily Breeze

Axel Koester / For the Daily Breeze

The Hawthorne Police Department is winding down one of the most difficult years in its history.

This summer, the agency faced outrage and criticism — including many violent threats — over the June 30 police shooting of a dog during an arrest that was captured on video and broadcast nationwide. Then, about a week later, a motorcycle officer was killed in a crash on his way home from work. He was the second motor officer in recent years to die on duty.

Meanwhile, the agency has had to contend with a tight budget and ongoing political corruption in the city, in addition to its usually high level of calls for service compared to other departments its size.

Despite these challenges, the organization has invested in very successful community-service programs that have received nationwide acclaim — most notably “Coffee With a Cop,” a standardized program devised by Hawthorne community affairs Sgt. Chris Cognac and implemented at police agencies nationwide this year. Its basic model is for police officers to meet with residents over coffee in the morning at a local restaurant to discuss policing.

Cognac, a former child-abuse detective who moonlighted as the Food Network’s “The Hungry Detective” touring local eateries, continued to popularize the program around the country this year. He also has recently embarked on such projects as a fundraiser that garnered thousands of dollars to help an Inglewood family after a crazed neighbor killed Filimon Lamas and his 4-year-old son, and shot and injured his wife and other children.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the group we have in community affairs,” Hawthorne Police Chief Bob Fager said. “They helped me progress the culture to meet new public expectations for services. There’s so much positive work that we do, but people gravitate to the 11 p.m. news bombshell.”

Earlier this year, Cognac decided to take on a new project called the Hawthorne Force Youth Ice Hockey team, because, simply, his two boys love hockey and it’s a very expensive sport.

“The basic premise is to bring hockey to kids that can’t afford it,” Cognac said, adding that it costs hundreds of dollars just to buy the gear for each child. “The cost makes hockey unattainable to most kids in our area.”

Fees to rent space at an ice rink and to receive instruction and join a league can easily cost parents more than $1,000 a year, he said.

Cognac wrote a grant request to the National Hockey League Players’ Association’s philanthropic Goals and Dreams program. He was awarded $15,000, which was enough to buy hockey gear for 24 kids ranging in age from 4 to 7. Still, he needs to come up with $300 each time the team practices for an hour. With additional donations from Wal-Mart and the Hawthorne Parks and Recreation Commission, along with parents and volunteers, Cognac lined up two months of practices at the rink.

Then he searched for kids who live in and around Hawthorne who were looking for an activity.

“We advertised a free ice-skating night through the Hawthorne School District,” Cognac said. “The ones that liked it signed up to try the hockey league. We gave them the gear and then just started practicing.”

Cognac gathered a group of volunteers that includes community affairs Officer Lameka Bell and other officers, parents, hockey aficionados and the Los Angeles Kings to help with coaching, snacks and other things needed to keep the program running.

Bell said her 5-year-old son loves the team.

“He’d never been to a hockey rink before,” she said. “All he knew about was football and basketball. You don’t see a lot of black kids playing hockey. This is great. And it’s fun to see them fall down and get right back up again.”

On Saturday night, the team met for its fourth practice at The Skating Edge Ice Arena in Harbor City.

Like many of the participants, 7-year-old Rigoberto Sanchez had never heard of hockey before meeting Cognac. But on Saturday, he got on the ice without reservation and glided as best he could after the rubber pucks they batted around.

“His first lesson, he was crying because he couldn’t skate,” said his mother, Iris Mejia. “Now, even if it’s 6:30 a.m., he’s ready to go to practice.”

On the ice, Sanchez joined several Hawthorne police officers and their children, and volunteers from the L.A. Chill women’s ice hockey club. The group lined up to smack pucks around. Some of the newer members practiced skating while holding onto another player.

“Right now, they’re just getting used to skating with the puck,” Cognac said, as Sanchez whacked a puck decisively to another teammate.

“Good job!” Cognac yelled. Sanchez beamed beneath his clunky helmet and face mask. “The first time he was crying the whole time and now look at him.”

Near the end of practice, Sanchez complained to his mother that he was getting too hot and the gear was uncomfortable, but Cognac told him to get some water and get ready for a quick scrimmage before their hour ended.

“Go, go, go Rigoberto!” Cognac said.

The boy rushed over to join his team as they faced off against another group, each diligently chopping at pucks with their hockey sticks. Afterward, Sanchez walked off the ice beaming and sweaty.

Hannah Acosta, 7, of Inglewood finished her first practice with the Hawthorne Force Youth Ice Hockey team on Saturday. She already loves ice skating but had never considered trying hockey.

“It was so fun,” she said, slightly out of breath and red-faced. “I like going forward and skating with the stick. I wanna be in the team.”