By Sgt Chris Cognac, Hawthorne California Police Dept

From the DOJ COPS office newsletter, January 2012

One of the big issues that law enforcement must continually deal with is communication. We all know that the majority of contacts law enforcement has with the public is in emergency, sometimes adversarial, or emotional situations. Let’s face it; those situations are not always the best time for a nice “sit-down chat about community issues.” So how do we communicate better with the people we serve? The answer to that question is simple; just have a cup of coffee. How is drinking a cup of coffee going to improve the way your agency, its officers, and staff communicate in your community you ask? Well, grab a cup of coffee, make yourself comfortable and I will tell you how the Hawthorne Police Department (HPD) did it, and how your agency can do it too!

Story of HPD Coffee with a Cop

When Chief Robert Fager created the Special Operations Bureau (SOB) and the Community Affairs Unit (CAU), he tasked the CAU with going into the community and identifying the problems and issues that were affecting it. The SOB was then tasked with being able to respond quickly to those needs, providing an efficient and permanent response.

While the CAU brainstormed ideas on how best to approach the task, someone remembered hearing something about cops and coffee—but nobody had ever actually seen it done or knew anyone who knew how to do it. So, we decided to take a risk and just “go for it.” I have a saying—“You can never succeed, if you are not prepared to fail”—which means that you have to take some chances and get out of your comfort zone in order to really make an impact.

We (the CAU) looked for a place that would provide us maximum exposure to people in a 2 hour period and offer a comfortable and inviting area for people to be able to discuss whatever they wanted. We settled on a McDonalds on the corner of a busy business district, right across from a good-sized neighborhood, figuring that we would get shoppers as well as residents from the neighborhood.

I approached Rafael Lemus, manager of the McDonalds and explained what we wanted to do in his store. Rafael was very excited about the idea and pledged the full support of his McDonalds, stating that he would set aside several tables and provide free coffee for everyone during the event. We made flyers and handed them out, posting the event info on both our Facebook page and our twitter (@hawthornepd). A call was put into the city yard supervisor and one of those “flashing signs” was placed along the main road with information about “Coffee with a Cop.”

Sgt. Cognac

Sgt. Cognac

The day of the event came and 3–4 officers and I drove to the McDonalds. We were armed with handouts and an optimism that something good was about to happen. I was nervous and wondered if anyone would show up, as well as a bit worried that the event would be a total failure. I was relieved to see that Rafael had set aside several of the larger tables in the center of the McDonalds and had trays of coffee, cream, and sugar waiting on them.

8:00 AM came and nobody was there, so we nervously waited. About 8:15 it happened—an almost never ending swarm of people came in to talk with us. They had issues such as graffiti, parking, fraud, and elder abuse. Some wanted to know why they had been traffic stopped and others wanted to tell us that they wanted to get rid of a “No Right Turn” sign. They were all glad that we were there and repeatedly thanked us. Most never had dealings with the police before and were worried that the concerns they had were not “big enough” for us to worry about. We assured them that all issues within the community are important to us. We even had to stay about a half hour longer than we had planned due to the high turnout.

We learned a lot that morning about the community, its needs, and how the residents and business’s perceive us and the job we do. We have had “Coffee with a Cop” every 6 weeks since then, moving it around to different parts of Hawthorne. We have added surveys via iPads that we now bring with us, which allow us to better analyze the information given by citizens. We also invite other units such as Victim Assistance or Children’s Services to attend every so often.

The “Coffee with a Cop” has been a rousing success and is now being implemented by several neighboring police departments, with Hawthorne Police assisting in planning the initial event. Would I recommend “Coffee with a Cop” to any police or law enforcement agency? You bet I would. All it takes is a nice place, some good coffee, and an open mind to greatly improve communication with the public and its perception of your officers and employees.

How can your agency put on “Coffee with a Cop”

What does your agency need to do in order to host a successful “Coffee with a Cop?” First and foremost, you need to choose a good, comfortable location, such as a major fast food chain or local favorite restaurant (don’t host it at a police facility). The Hawthorne Police have partnered with both McDonalds and Starbucks, as they are well known to all members of the community, tend to be comfortable, and are visited by people from all walks of life (and have good coffee!). These places are “neutral ground” for everyone and allow for both citizens and officers to relax, which helps facilitate good communication.

Have an open mind, a smile, and a handshake,but be prepared to deal with people that have had some problems with the police. I have found that these contacts often end on a positive note if I just listen to what the person has to say. Most of the time the issues are easily dealt with and you have now made a positive impression.

Have a “central table” inside with displays and hand outs on issues like teen “sexting” and identity theft that people can take home. Make sure you have enough officers and staff available to spend adequate time with people coming in to talk. People can be shy or intimidated; often they will get a cup of coffee and just sit down looking in the direction of officers. This is a sign that they want to “talk,” so make sure someone goes over to them and asks if there is anything they want to talk about.

It is best to allow at least 2 hours for the event itself, and be prepared to stay as long as 3 hours. The day and time will also determine what type of person will attend the event. If you hold your event during the Tuesday morning commute, you will tend to get working folks that stop in on their way to work, and then a smaller influx of family types later, after the rush hour is over. If your event is held on a Saturday from 9–11AM you will get a heavy resident and family type crowd, so I suggest varying the days and times to ensure a good mix of people. Make sure you advertise your event via social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and if available, electronic signs.

If you would like help in setting up “Coffee with a Cop” in your community feel free to contact Sgt. Cognac HERE , and check out coffeewithacop.com,facebook/coffeewithacop, and @coffeewithacop to post your events’ information on those sites as well as your own.