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Can a Fresh Cup of Coffee Help Mend Police-Civilian Relations?

In New Orleans and around the world, a new initiative called Coffee With a Cop is encouraging greater transparency between citizens and police.

By Sarah Baird


(Illustration: Coffee With a Cop)

What’s the last conversation you had with a police officer?

Chances are it wasn’t about the weather. Or your favorite local cover band. Or their kid’s youth soccer game.

Chance are … it was more stressful than not.

All that’s about to change, if Sergeant Chis Cognac has anything to say about it. Operating under some simple guidelines (“no speeches, no agenda”), the co-founder of Coffee With a Cop has set out to shift the timbre of police-citizen interactions.

“You can talk about crime or you can talk about football,” Cognac says, “that doesn’t really matter. The important thing is the actual back-and-forth. As cops, we’re used to the traditional talking at you form of communication, so we sometimes have to remember — or learn — how to talk with people. This isn’t a town hall.”

The concept behind Coffee With a Cop is a deceptively simple one. Once a month or so, police officers gather at a local restaurant and offer free coffee for community members who’d like to chat. That’s it. There’s no real playbook, no presentation, no line of demarcation between officer and citizen. Instead, the restaurant becomes a neutral ground — a neighborhood Switzerland of sorts — for building rapport and, hopefully, trust.

Nearby, a neon-green H&R Block building has been freshly spray-painted with the words COPS ARE CREEPS in giant red letters. The officers have their work cut out for them.

Over the past decade, uneasiness between community members and cops has reached new heights, with each passing year bringing an even greater depletion in trust. A 2015 Gallup poll found confidence levels in the police are now the lowest in 22 years, and recent fatal shootings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and St. Paul, Minnesota, have increased baseline-levels of fear and suspicion even more, especially within minority communities.

“The lack of trust between police and the public is at an all-time low,” Cognac notes. “In order to repair that, we need to start talking. Coffee With a Cop kick-starts community policing by removing barriers to typical contact between people and officers.”

Launched in 2011 at Cognac’s 100-person police department in Hawthorne, California, the initiative banks on the truth that when people are breaking bread together (or clinking mugs), they’re more likely to listen to one another. Around the breakfast table, it’s nearly impossible to disengage with someone as you sip matching cups of muddy black coffee, elbows anchored into the same sticky linoleum. Everything about Coffee With a Cop — down to the low-key, alliterative name — is designed to be approachable.


(Photo: Sarah Baird)

And in many places, it seems to be working.

In just a little over five years, what started off as a grassroots crusade has expanded to all 50 states, Canada, Wales, Nigeria, Holland, and, soon, New Zealand. In Australia, they’re using it to help build relationships between local police and Syrian refugees. The police in Oahu, Hawaii, (who, Cognac admits, were initially skeptical of the program) have seen such successful coffee-based relationship building that they’ve become the poster-child for other departments across the state.

The program is also expansively open to interpretation. Pop With a Cop in Omaha, Nebraska, for example, takes place in the afternoon for those who can’t make morning meetings, and uses soda as the social lubricant. In Davenport, Iowa, the Cops and Cones program is a family focused event where officers serve ice cream in a local park. At the Department of Justice earlier this year, Juice With a Cop Day gave a decidedly younger crowd the chance to shake hands with badge-holders.

Nationally, interest in the initiative seems stronger than ever, Cognac says, noting a particular increase after five officers were killed during a shooting rampage in downtown Dallas this July.

“Post-Dallas, there was a huge uptick in activity,” he says. “It humanizes who we are. We’re planting the seeds around the country for more community policing. At first, a lot of old-school command staff didn’t get it. We said, ‘Trust us.’”

Community-based policing is just what it sounds like: The notion that one-on-one relationship building with citizens creates stronger, safer cities. It’s also a philosophy that has waxed and wanted in enthusiasm among departments since the mid-20th century. A return to community policing is at the very heart of Coffee With a Cop, though, and, in New Orleans, many officers never really stopped singing its praises.

“Back in the ’90s, in the Desire Projects, we worked out of the apartments there,” says Officer Beverly Ashe of the New Orleans Police Department, digging into a jelly-covered biscuit. “We’d help the kids get ready for school sometimes, help them with their homework. We knew everybody.”

She shakes her head, rolling her eyes. “They got rid of the program, though.”

It’s a drizzly Saturday morning in August, and the second-ever Coffee With Cops effort is underway at eight different McDonald’s locations across the city. For decades, New Orleans has struggled with an extraordinarily volatile police-community dynamic, and if Coffee With Cops can prove successful in the city, it will be a powerful endorsement of the program’s ability to mend the officer-citizen relationship — or not.

On Canal Street, a few coffee-seekers trickle in, but the morning is slow. A trio of cops meet-and-greet with older gentlemen for whom McDonald’s is clearly a regular hangout, swapping stories about their grandkids. A Hispanic mother and her three children arrive shortly after 9:00 a.m., the two youngest boys decked out in satin superhero capes. They giggle, fidgeting with their hands, as Ashe asks them about their outfits. The older daughter, who is clearly less interested, translates the conversation for their mother. Her brothers want to be cops, she tells me, but she wants to be a scientist.

“We’re helping people to see police officers as humans,” Cognac says, “and police officers see citizens as more than just a radio call.”

“We’re all citizens of this great city, and most people want police officers to be normal, to be a person. That’s why this program is good,” Officer Kenny Gill says, then pauses, looking around. “Most of the people who come to something like this are upper-age. But it’s a start.”

Gill worked as an NOPD “quality of life” officer — a designated group focusing on neighborhood issues such as blighted property and noise complaints — for just over 11 years, until the department was disbanded in February. From that perspective, launching a branch of Coffee With a Cop while shutting down a community-focused day-to-day program can’t help but seem like one step forward and two steps back for the city.

“I miss it very much,” Gill says. “We got to go to all the monthly meetings within the neighborhoods. It was working with the people one-on-one. They got to know you. It was good.”

Later in the morning, down in the Ninth Ward, more than a half-dozen cops are clustered next to an ice machine, waiting for the community members they hope will make an appearance. Very few have shown up so far, and most of the folks eating breakfast inside McDonald’s — a guy with stars tattooed on his bald head, a tired-eyed mom with a newborn baby — seem completely uninterested in conversation. Nearby, a neon-green H&R Block building has been freshly spray-painted with the words COPS ARE CREEPS in giant, red letters. The officers have their work cut out for them.

“The Fifth District sticks together,” says Commanding Officer Frank Young. “I believe it’s the most diverse neighborhood in the city, and also one of the most tightly knit.”

One of these neighbors is 81-year-old Henry Irvin, a very vocal community activist who has dubbed himself the “Mayor of the Ninth Ward.” Officer Young notes that, even though he’s seen Irvin at meetings for years, he didn’t know until this morning that Irvin had three sons, and had worked for decades at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration facility in New Orleans East before retiring. Young credits this Coffee With a Cop morning for making that personal connection possible.

Eventually, a rockabilly styled couple — one of whom is the spitting image of a young Jon Bon Jovi — comes to chat about the noise of the train tracks near their house. A handful of others eventually stroll in. Irvin half-smiles, pleased that his community is turning out.

“Transparency is the biggest thing we have. We have to get the word around about events like this. I always tell people, ‘Come to the meetings!’” Irvin pauses, leaning on his cane. The twinkle in his eye looks like that of someone half his age. “I’m blessed to be able to still get around like I do. Like Steve Harvey says: ‘I can’t trip. God ain’t finished with me yet!’”

Assuredly, once-a-month events can’t be the only way police departments attempt to piece together stronger relationships with community members — especially in cities where tensions already run high. Many of the people who need to be reached the most through a program like Coffee With a Cop will be excluded by its very design, shut out by deep-seated fears or simple scheduling conflicts.

But perhaps it’s modest enough to be a start.

“We’re helping people to see police officers as humans,” Cognac says, “and police officers see citizens as more than just a radio call.”