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Warmer-Upper

'Coffee with a Cop' events aim to reform police culture in Santa Rosa

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BLACK AND BLUE A Santa Rosa police officer meets with residents at Sam's For Play Cafe.
  • BLACK AND BLUE A Santa Rosa police officer meets with residents at Sam's For Play Cafe.

Sgt. Jeneane Kucker greets a steady flow of police officers coming in and out the door of Sam's For Play Cafe on a cool and cloudy Thursday morning in unincorporated Roseland.

It's the sixth "Coffee with a Cop" event hosted by the Santa Rosa Police Department, and the place is bustling with chatter: property owners are in discussion with an officer at the counter, a volunteer officer stands at the ready with pamphlets, and uniforms engage with citizens at the tables over bottomless cups. There's a lot to talk about.

Coffee with a Cop is a program started in 2011 by the Hawthorne, Calif., police force that has quickly grown into an informal best practice for law enforcement organizations that have been under especially intense scrutiny recently through high-profile, viral-video encounters with the public. Close to home, there is the lingering shadow of the 2013 death of Andy Lopez in nearby Moorland, and the anticipated annexation of Roseland into the city limits by 2017—and what that means for the local police force.

Kucker runs the Coffee with a Cop program in Santa Rosa, and says it's a multifunction opportunity for officers to field complaints and engage with the public engagement in a calm, if hypercaffeinated, environment. The program aims to build trust and community partnerships and fight a pernicious "They're all bad apples" anti-police bias fueled in part by explosive viral videos.

These events "help with the perception of the police and break up the stereotype," says Kucker. "This humanizes the badge," lets the public know that cops are parents, regular people too—"Hey I have a life outside this uniform and badge."

In five events, she says, the response to Coffee with a Cop is that "overwhelmingly . . . everybody has this craving for the communication, the relationship," Kucker says. "The hard part is still the job. We drive around in cars that we consider to be our offices, responding to emotionally charged situations. Here, we're not responding to an emergency; we're here to lower the barriers. This program is becoming part of our culture—it has become part of our culture at this point."

Santa Rosa Police Chief Robert Schreeder is at a table with Capt. Craig Schwartz, and says the coffees are a piece of community policing that addresses the difficulty in getting "officers to talk to people when they're not in crisis, one on one." The biggest challenge with a program like Coffee with a Cop, he says, is police culture itself, and changing it with the necessary buy-in from the officers.

It's not uncommon for officers to resist change, Schreeder says, and what better way to reform the culture than in a "comfortable, positive environment," such as a diner. His officers, he says, get "10 to 12 calls for service a day, a crisis, a problem, people always in need. You want to meet them in a low-stress way."

He expects all police trainees to attend the coffees.

The program has special impact in Roseland, which Schreeder says "needs to be part of the city of Santa Rosa. This is a part of town where people often feel nobody is looking out for them."

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office is the lead law enforcement agency in several pockets of unincorporated Roseland, including where we are sitting this morning along Sebastopol Road. Kucker, an 18-year veteran of the SRPD, says "the beats intertwine and overlap," but the plan is to slowly incorporate the Sheriff's Office sections into the Santa Rosa Police Department's jurisdiction.

In anticipation of annexation, Schreeder has asked for 10 additional employees for the SRPD roster. There are now 65 beat officers on the force out of a total staff of 247, including civilians. "I tell people, every law enforcement organization has a culture," Schreeder says. "We are trying to create that one here."

The new hires would join a force that has put an emphasis on criminology concepts around "procedural justice" and "implicit bias" as it works to build trust. Part of that is explaining how policing works, or should work, which is what procedural justice is all about, Schwartz says. "Give people their voice; be neutral in the conflict; make sure you are basing your actions on the Constitution and law, not on biases; get them to trust that you have their best interest at heart."

Schwartz says the coffees can also help with misperceptions of policing that arise from unchecked bias and videos offered to the internet without context. He acknowledges that some are "spectacular" in the sense that the use of force is unjustified, but adds that in other instances, the "difficulty is reconciling the different viewpoints of the video."

Officers can watch an incident and think, "That's lawful use of force, even if it looks ugly on video," says Schwartz. "A critic's impression: That's a bad apple."

As police culture shifts, so too does the law, and Schwartz says Coffee with a Cop provides an opportunity for officers to explain those changes and defuse frustrations in situations where the police themselves can't do anything. "We try to get people to recognize that the police are not always going to meet their needs. There are times we can't, it's not our role, and that's frustrating to the citizen," Schwartz says. "Laws change, societal expectations change over time, and while the laws may change, the expectations remain the same."

Schwartz notes the "frequency of complaints about [medical] marijuana grows. People still call us all the time because someone is growing three plants in their backyard."

Kucker says she plans on a Coffee with a Cop event every six to eight weeks and expects the next one will be in the Coddingtown mall area. "I am pretty sure officers are running into people they meet at these events," she says. "There is a boomerang effect because of these conversations we are having."

One of those boomerangs made it to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office, which reached out to Kucker for advice and held its first Coffee with a Cop earlier this month.

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