What I learned from a day spent drinking coffee with cops
By Joel Stein
This article was originally published in Time Magazine, March 4, 2013
I've done a poor job of assembling my group of friends. I hang out with about 30 journalists, 15 comedy writers and a few lawyers. It's as if the only lesson I took away from all those heist movies and A-Team episodes was that when times are dire and the authorities won't help, you need buddies to make libel-free parodies.
But last year, I made a cop friend. I would like to say we met as he yanked me off a terrorist I was beating too severely after catching him torturing a basket of puppies and saying mean things about Princess Diana, but we actually sat next to each other in a Hummer limousine that my friend the Simpsons writer Matt Selman had rented for a taco crawl. Sergeant Chris Cognac was sitting among the writers and agents because, apparently, in Los Angeles our cops are also former hosts of the Food Network's The Hungry Detective. I was immediately drawn to Cognac because he is sunny and energetic and had a gun. Great taco stands are not in the best neighborhoods.
The cool thing about having a cop friend is that I can ask him all the stuff I've always wondered about the police, most of which starts with "Would I get arrested if ...?" Which is exactly why Cognac started Coffee with a Cop at his department in Hawthorne, a town next to L.A. Every six weeks, at a different McDonald's, Hawthorne police officers hand out free hot beverages and answer questions. Cognac told me the program is based on the theory that it takes 10 "green dots," or positive interactions with the police (having your family heirloom recovered; getting free coffee; watching the first two Lethal Weapon movies), to erase one "red dot" (getting pulled over; seeing a video of a suspect beaten with a baton; watching the last two Lethal Weapon movies). Cognac recently got a grant of $399,989 from the U.S. Department of Justice to expand his program to other cities. I, meanwhile, am considering applying for a grant to investigate $11 that might be sitting in a drawer at the Department of Justice.
One of the biggest benefits of the Coffee with a Cop program, Cognac says, isn't just that citizens leave with a better attitude toward cops but also that the event improves cops' morale. Hawthorne has had to limit the number of officers who can attend, because they're all eager to be in an atmosphere where people actually want to talk to them. I was deeply confused by the fact that cops want to be liked, since they decided to be cops. Then again, I'm desperate for everyone to love me, and I became a journalist.
To prove just how excited people are to talk to cops, Cognac and Captain Keith Kauffman picked me up at 5:30 a.m. to check out a Coffee with a Cop event in Santa Barbara. I sat in the passenger seat so Kauffman could sleep in the back, since he'd been up all night after someone shot up a police car in broad daylight, leaving bullets in the upholstery inches from an officer's head. I could empathize with being hated for doing your job, since I often get mean e-mails from readers, which are like bullets to my heart. Luckily I couldn't share that analogy with Kauffman, since he was asleep.
Santa Barbara, unsurprisingly, is not like Hawthorne, which has crime. Even though Kauffman knew that, when he woke up and walked into the Good Cup, he was shocked that Santa Barbarans were offering to buy him coffee. And give him hugs. And they didn't need to be cajoled into approaching the 10 cops at the café. Sitting with them, I quickly learned that most people's problems fall into two categories: 1) I don't understand obscure traffic laws I have spent a lot of time thinking about and drawing on graph paper and 2) I have a burning, all-consuming hatred for my next-door neighbor.
I once thought I felt bad for cops because of the getting-shot-at thing. Now I feel bad for them because they have to listen to people talk about traffic and neighbors. But as I tuned out neighbor complainer after neighbor complainer, the cops seemed concerned about every picayune issue. "We want the problems when they're small, so they don't turn into 911 calls," said Santa Barbara officer Kasi Beutel. "We don't want people poisoning each other's dogs in a 10-year feud." Jeffrey Stoutenborough, who had a problem with his neighbor's boyfriend, said, "Whether they can do anything or not, even that they listened to us gives us hope." I'm not sure what the cops can do for him, unless Beutel was making sure Stoutenborough heard her comment about dog poisoning.
I left the café far less intimidated by police, by Santa Barbara and by taking a left on red from a one-way street onto another one-way street. I wonder if the government would fund a Coffee with a Magazine Writer program. Or just buy us some coffee. It's getting tough for us out there. We'll even take the $11.
Joel Stein is a journalist who wrote for the LA Times and is a regular contributor to Time Magazine. He can be reached here.