ON A COLD and sunny February morning, local residents trickled into the Emerald Isle Ben and Jerry’s for the first Coffee with a Cop program. As they filed in, residents grabbed some coffee and a table and easily struck up conversations with one of several officers in attendance, including Chief Jeff Waters.
“We wanted to start the foundation of a communication line between the residents and the officers. It gives the officers an opportunity to get out of their cars and speak to residents, and the opportunity for the residents to meet the officers,” Chief Waters said.
The original first session was canceled due to adverse weather, so the February meeting became the first time residents could chit chat with officers. While there was no set topic of discussion, Sgt. David Ketchum found that he was asked some pretty general questions.
“Things like how long I’ve worked on the force, sort of thing. Where I live, where I’m from, nothing real political – just general questions. It’s on more of a personal level than any of the other interactions with our officers. It’s a positive in a bunch of ways,” he continued.
The Coffee with a Cop program is a national initiative that started in Hawthorne, Calif. The majority of the contact law enforcement has with the public is in cases of emergency, sometimes adversarial or emotional situations, none of which are the best time to ask about issues within the community. When the Hawthorne Police Dept. Community Affairs Unit was tasked with going into the community and identifying problems and issues that were affecting it, they decided to grab a cup of coffee – literally. Since publicity of the event spread throughout 2012, similar operations popped up across the country. And Hawthorne was able to secure a federal grant to facilitate the spread of the program through technical assistance and training.
The public turn-out for that initial meeting exceeded expectations, and Emerald Isle was no different. Mayor Eddie Barber commented that there was a high turn-out of residents to the first event.
“This is fantastic. I’m so impressed. They’re making a conscientious effort to be more community-friendly,” he said.
While the community now has a platform to voice its concerns to the department, the officers also get something positive out of it. The national program’s website states that the key to the program’s success is that it removes the physical barriers and crisis situations that routinely define interactions between law enforcement officials and community members. Instead, the program allows for relaxed, informal one-on-one interactions in a friendly atmosphere. This informal contact increases trust in police officers as individuals which is the foundation to building partnerships and engaging in community problem solving.
Officer George Blalock said that he thinks Coffee with a Cop is a great program, and he enjoys it.
“I didn’t expect there to be so many people,” he said.
Other officers in attendance were in agreement that the program is good for the department and the residents, including Sgt. Ketchum.
“I think it’s a good idea. It helps people have a more positive outlook on us as individuals and as a whole department, rather than running into us out on the street or in a traffic stop. Usually that’s not a positive interaction, from their perspective. From ours, it is, but we have a different perspective of it than most people out here. So I think it’s a good idea,” Ketchum added.
Chief Waters registered Emerald Isle Police Dept. with the national program and plans to continue to meet monthly. Coffee with a Cop meets in a different location on the fourth Thursday of each month from 9-10am. The April meeting is held at Emerald Grill.
Other than Coffee with a Cop, there are several other ways to be more involved with area police. Emerald Isle also offers the PEP program, or Police Educating the Public. The group meets at 10am on the third Tuesday of every month in the town meeting room. The meetings consist of an hour-long class on a variety of topics, led by different officers. This month’s class, scheduled for April 15, covers road rage and is led by Chief Waters.
Atlantic Beach Police Dept. offers a Volunteer’s in Policing program, which was established in 2009. Volunteers have to meet specific criteria to volunteer at the department, and may be asked to help perform non-enforcement duties to help free up officers who can then focus more on prevention and enforcement. Contact the department for more information on how to join.