Want Better Police-Community Relations? Try Coffee With a Cop

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Photo by DIVINGLEO via Flickr

I’ve been reading about how drones, artificial intelligence and facial-recognition technologies are going to take our industry of policing to an entirely new level.

Technology will improve safety, they say. Cops will make quicker arrests, they argue. The world will be a better place for all, they assure.

That’s all well and swell, but from my perspective, the future of policing remains firmly in the able and quite human hands of the men and women in law enforcement who spend every day of their lives protecting their communities.

Want to know why I believe this? Consider National Coffee with a Cop Day.

An idea adopted in towns and communities across the nation in 2011, it was launched as an annual national event last year. (The next annual “coffee” day is scheduled October 7, 2017.)

It’s such a good idea. National Coffee with a Cop Day benefits both sides of the badge. Often times, that uniform and that badge can serve as a barrier. Sitting down and breaking bread or having coffee addresses that barrier and what is learned about the other shatters it.

I am not surprised. I find that it takes more effort to be silent over coffee than it does to be able to talk.

 Moments like these enable citizens to realize that there is a human being wearing that uniform and it allows the officer to know they are not just dealing with a statistic or a suspect.

I believe you develop trust one person at a time. I know people who don’t believe in their police department that serves their community, but do believe in their officers. They won’t call the police station and report a crime, but they will call the cell phone of the police officer who has been walking their block for the past month or two.

It sounds like a strange notion. But it’s just like people who believe in their pastor but not their church. It may be difficult to explain, but I cannot tell you the number of people I have spoken to over the years and asked them why they didn’t report a crime.

Their answer? I didn’t know anybody there.

At its essence though, coffee with a cop is not about just drinking coffee with a police officer. It’s a moment where police officers can win over their community members and develop a relationship that the barrier caused by a badge can never tear down.

The only thing better than National Coffee with a Cop Day is having a cup of coffee with the same cop every month. It shouldn’t begin and end at the coffee table that one time, whether it’s at a local diner or someone’s home. That just needs to be where it starts.

Whether a cop is in a car or walking the beat, what matters is the community sees the same cop every day.

In the post-modern era, post-World War II, the industry of policing got taken by technology—just like every industry did. It has had consequences.

We couldn’t believe our good fortune that we could create a 911 system where someone could grab a rotary phone, dial three numbers, and the cops would magically appear. It’s just like—and I remember this vividly—when we put a police radio in the car so the officer could keep in touch with dispatch and rarely leave the car.

The consequence has been anonymity – our officers lost connection with their beats while officers became interchangeable.

It turns out, relationships matter.

It’s hard to hate someone up close. So, I will say it again because this is important. Relationships matter.

At each of the departments where I had the privilege to be the chief of police—Stamford, Providence and New Haven—we instituted the mandatory walking beat after graduation from the academy and the FTO program.

 Every single officer walked the same beat for a year. Each month, I would bring those rookies in to the conference room and ask them for their experiences. The stories evolved the same way: The first week or two, they were eyeballed by everyone in the neighborhood, and vice versa.

But after a month, they couldn’t get to the end of the block without a wave. Then by another month, they knew their family names and had their cell numbers

 Sooner or later I would get the same story. It went like this: “Chief, I don’t understand, I walked by this lady and every day I greeted her, and one day, she said, ‘Officer, can you stop for a minute? I want to talk to you,’ and she tells her story of a horrendous crime that happened to her months earlier, and the cop always says,

‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’ And she would respond, ‘I didn’t know you then.’”

 That’s why officers embraced walking beats and the neighborhood embraced the officer. As they say, sure and steady wins the race.

 I didn’t need people to like me as chief or (like) the police department. But I needed them to trust their officer.

It’s also much safer for the officer because the community will come to his or her defense.

 The future remains somewhat hard for me to grasp. Searches are being operated with robots, drones are telling us what we see. And computers are using cameras to figure out who everyone is.

 The question for me is not the technology; it’s how it is being used. Is it in trusted hands? Because the trust I am talking about is built through relationships, not computer bytes.

 Once again, we will find that technological advances create opportunity, just as they build further upon this idea of a growing anonymity in police departments.

 Officers will have to work hard to ensure those conversations conducted over coffee are not forgotten. But as technology becomes further entrenched in departments, those conversations will help.

It is much easier for an officer who is trusted by the community to be able to be talk about the technology than the community learning about it through coming in contact with it for the first time.

We must remember that technology also has no moral compass. The hands that operate it have the moral compass. I would much rather prefer to have someone I know and trust explain why they are using a camera or a drone or facial recognition technology than someone I don’t know.

 Technology will never replace human relationships. It will only augment and support them.

 This reminds me of another story from the rookies.

 We had a huge snow storm a few years ago, and we sent the rookies out there in cars with shovels to help people. And what happened? They couldn’t believe the public was coming out to help them when their cars got stuck in the snow.

 Those efforts shown by those rookie cops in the days and months leading up to that moment showed that community members weren’t digging out cops from the police department. They were digging out rookies they knew.

Former Chief Dean M. Esserman

 As I said, the hands that hold the tools make all the difference in the world.

Dean M. Esserman is senior counselor with the Police Foundation, and former chief of the New Haven (CT) Police Department. He also served as Chief of Police in Providence, Rhode Island; Stamford, Connecticut; and the New York State MTA-Metro North Police Department. The above is a slightly edited version of an essay reprinted with permission from the Police Foundation. The full essay is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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