Sgt. Chris Cognac, during his days with the Hawthorne Police Department, is shown visiting with members of the public during Coffee with a Cop. - PHOTO: Hawthorne Police Department

Sgt. Chris Cognac, during his days with the Hawthorne Police Department, is shown visiting with members of the public during Coffee with a Cop.

PHOTO: Hawthorne Police Department

After a two-year break during the pandemic, National Coffee with a Cop Day will again be observed across the country on the first Wednesday of October. The mission of Coffee with a Cop is “to break down the barriers between police officers and the citizens they serve.”

Coffee with a Cop, which can be hosted anytime a department deems and not just on the national observance day, is commonplace now but long ago the concept was unknown. That was, until officers at the Hawthorne Police Department (CA) gave it a try.

At first it floundered, but once they tried again and found success, they began building the concept into what it has become. Of those initial coffee officers, one has long since retired from the department but still actively helps lead the effort through Coffee with a Cop, Inc., a California nonprofit corporation run by current and retired officers from the Hawthorne Police Department.

Retired Sgt. Chris Cognac, who retired from the department in 2018 and even starred in a series on Food Network at one point, still remembers when he, his partner John Dixon, and Capt. Keith Kauffman launched the concept. In 2011 under new Chief Robert Fager, the department was going through some restructuring, says Cognac, and there was a new focus on how officers communicated with the public.

“We realized that we hadn't been communicating well. We had been doing the usual town hall meetings, etc., etc., but that's really just talking at people. There was no real communication,” says Cognac. “So, my partner at the time, John Dixon said, ‘Hey, why don't we go sit at McDonald's and have coffee with people?’”

Cognac describes what he recalls as an “epic failure” at first.

“We realized that people aren't necessarily going to come up and talk to you at a public place, because there's barriers and we started to realize what the barriers were — the uniform, the table, things like that. So, I grabbed a pot of coffee, and I walked around to tables and started pouring coffee. And what that did was completely changed the dynamics of the conversation,” he explains. “Coffee serves like a bridge to communication.”

With that pouring of the first cups of coffee and getting past those barriers, the concept of Coffee with a Cop grabbed a foothold.

“We realized at the beginning of the first one when I started pouring coffee and communication started to flow with people that people relaxed that this was going to work. So, two weeks later we did another one, but we did it the right way.”

Cognac wrote an article for the Department of Justice’s Community Policing Dispatch newsletter about the experience and the concept. Hawthorne Police Department immediately was contacted by police departments in Gulf Shores, AL; Evansville, IN; and Superior, WI; wanting to know how they could start their own Coffee with a Cop programs. Soon Hawthorne was also contacted by someone at the University of Illinois' Center for Public Safety and Justice suggesting the department pursue a Department of Justice (DOJ) grant for the program.

“Like, what are we going to do? You know, I mean, it's just coffee. But then I realized there's a lot more to it in communication, culture, barriers, things like that,” details Cognac. The person who suggested a grant helped craft the grant application that landed $399,990 for the Hawthorne Police Department from DOJ.

That grant enabled development of a curriculum on how to use this coffee gathering to communicate with the community, what works and what doesn’t. Working with DOJ, Coffee with a Cop created training classes and Cognac and others traveled to other departments teaching the concept. Officers at the Hawthorne Police Department continued growing the concept through Coffee with a Cop Inc.

Officers in Hawthorne hoped their concept would grow to all 50 states, and it did. Actually, it grew well past the borders of the United States.

“It began to organically grow internationally, which is kind of cool. I got a call from the superintendent of the Sydney (Australia) police one day and he was great,” tells Cognac as he points out that the superintendent did sound a little like the movie character Crocodile Dundee. In Sydney, police used Coffee with a Cop to build better relations with Syrian immigrants who were coming from a country where they didn’t trust police based on experiences. Cognac even traveled to Sydney to help train police and witnessed a “hugely successful” event that drew hundreds of people at a shopping mall.

The DOJ grant funds for Coffee with a Cop ended in 2015. But the Hawthorne officers and Coffee with a Cop believers did not rest, they continued forward.

“We just ran with it. We supported ourselves. We saw the momentum of this, and we could not let it end because it was a great program, and it was really building bridges in communities large and small. So, we continued to teach the class as best we could. And we grew the program,” says Cognac.

Hawthorne Police Chief Michael Ishii, who succeeded Fager as chief in 2018, actively leads the administrative efforts of Coffee with a Cop Inc. One of the latest international success stories he shares comes from India, where the photo accompanying the story showed several women in burkas flanking a female Indian police officer during Coffee with a Cop. He points to that example as how this concept can bring different individuals and beliefs together over coffee when they might not otherwise meet each other.

The trend of the Coffee with a Cop even being adopted internationally by police has continued. Cognac says in the last Coffee with a Cop Day prior to the pandemic, police held an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 events the same day across nine countries.

The key to being successful, as taught in the classes, includez two simple points – no agenda and no speeches. Police are taught even to watch for politicians that may arrive and try to take center stage. There are tactful ways to address that and keep the focus on the cops and the community people. The event is not even a stage for a police chief, and Ishii even says a chief should “arrive late and leave early.” The day is about the regular cops on the streets and their chance to engage with common people. If a chief shows up, that takes people’s attention away from the regular officers Ishii says.

Hawthorne Chief Michael Ishii helps lead Coffee with a Cop Inc., which grew from a concept launched by the department more than a decade ago. - PHOTO: Hawthorne Police Department

Hawthorne Chief Michael Ishii helps lead Coffee with a Cop Inc., which grew from a concept launched by the department more than a decade ago.

PHOTO: Hawthorne Police Department

In keeping Coffee with a Cop about the line-level officers, Cognac suggested sending a “snapshot” of the officers in the department — someone from each job function. Ishii points out he often has seen how the officers benefit from meeting the public.

“We found the officers need this just as much as the community. The officers are going through so many things, especially now with negativity, negative press, just feeling like nobody's really listening and caring, and then this Coffee with a Cop event gives those line level officers an opportunity to meet the community,” says Ishii. “It gives them a meaning and purpose in why they signed up to do what they do when they meet the regular folks. This event gives that opportunity for officers to meet those regular people that live in a community and want them there and need their support.”

Community Policing Bargain

“Agencies are able to do Coffee with a Cop and really all they have to do is pay for a couple of cups of coffee. It’s the best community policing bargain on the planet. You know, you don't always have to have a gigantic dog and pony show and throw a lot of money at something. You know, this works. If it ain't broke, don't fix it,” says Cognac.

He and Ishii freely share tips, such as holding Coffee with a Cop at a neutral location. In Hawthorne, cops started it inside a McDonalds. Other cities have held similar events in places like parks, or even a 7-Eleven. Down under, police take a coffee van out into the Outback to meet truckers driving land trains. Regardless of location, one thing to note is it is good to have an officer act as a host, greet people, and then pass them off to other officers.

“The host is a huge part of how this goes,” says Ishii.

Also, don’t hold Coffee with a Cop in the back room of a restaurant, make sure you are out front where the community walks in. Tips like these and others have been developed and shared as the concept has grown through the years.

Cops clustering together, Ishii points out, creates a perceived barrier that keeps residents from approaching. Cognac often shares a story from when he taught a class and then attended Coffee with a Cop in Valparaiso, IN. There was a group of officers at a table and a woman approached Cognac saying she wanted to talk to the officers. The officers recognized her and knew that she was in there every morning while they had breakfast. So why did she never talk to them before?

“Her response was that she never wanted to bother them. But she had written down a list of things that she wanted to ask these officers but was too scared to talk to them every morning when they’d come to breakfast. But now that Coffee with a Cop was there, she felt empowered to do it,” Cognac explains.  “These cops had no idea that this lady had any of these concerns because a lot of times when we eat, we're not giving up the ‘Hey, I'm real friendly vibe,’ because we've only got a few minutes to eat.”

National Day

After the success and acceptance of Coffee with a Cop, Ishi and Cognac created National Coffee with a Cop Day, and it all goes back to ice cream.

“It really just came from Chris and I talking about we heard on the radio one day, ‘today is National Ice Cream Day.’ And we figured if there's a National Ice Cream Day, why can't there be a National Coffee with a Cop Day and from that we hatched the idea,” explains Ishii.

They went to a website that registers national days, put it in, and it was approved for the first Wednesday every October. That also coincides with National Community Police Week. That national observance started in 2016, says Ishii. After being put on hold in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, it now returns this year on Oct. 5.

Private-Sector Funding

In recent years a new private-sector source has helped support Coffee with a Cop Inc. In August 2020, Carfax for Police partnered with Coffee with a Cop to raise awareness for the organization’s mission among the company’s 83,000 law enforcement users and beyond.

“Through a $25,000 charitable contribution in 2021, we have committed to growing awareness and trainings that support better connectedness between communities and police.  In 2022, we collaborated to launch Common Ground, an online training and storytelling series that highlights real stories of successful community engagement programs. Sharing these inspirational stories helps to educate other law enforcement professionals about the positive impact of community policing initiatives,” says retired Lt. Michael Ledoux, Carfax for Police director of business development. “Carfax for Police is proud to support Coffee with a Cop. We share a common mission and values that aim to build stronger and safer communities.”

The partnership will be evident in October at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Dallas, TX. Coffee with a Cop will be part of the Carfax for Police booth during the event.

“Carfax for Police has been a great partner with us and allows us to continue with spreading the word,” says Ishii.