The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 4, 2017

It takes more than “Coffee with a Cop” to build relationships

October 4, 2017

Today is National Coffee with a Cop Day. It’s a day intended to break down barriers between communities and law enforcement, the kinds of barriers we’ve found lead to a lack of trust and a perpetuation of issues around police legitimacy.

What’s great about Coffee with a Cop is how widely it seems to be happening. According to the US Department of Justice, over 2,000 law enforcement agencies are participating, and that’s a lot of people sitting across from law enforcement and engaging face to face. But are they the right people? And is coffee the setting that will inspire comprehensive and lasting change?

For many residents of overpoliced communities, it doesn’t take initiatives like Coffee with a Cop or National Night Out, another annual event for promoting police-community partnerships, to prompt face-to-face engagement with law enforcement. Pretextual , even racially biased traffic stops and experiences with stop and frisk have made this a problem not of too few interactions with law enforcement, but of the wrong kinds of interactions souring the relationship. So it’s unlikely that special or unusual opportunities to interact with police officers, like Coffee with a Cop, will fix the relationship.

But understanding how hard it will be to fix relationships between law enforcement and communities requires an understanding of how troubled those relationships are. As we’ve written before, residents of high-crime neighborhoods may believe in the law, but they don’t necessarily trust police as the people tasked with protecting and serving them with those laws in mind.

Additional research shows the negative perceptions go both ways. Twenty-three percent of police surveyed as part of a study in Chicago said they have reason to be distrustful of most citizens, and few felt people were willing to work with them to solve neighborhood problems.

These tensions call into question whether the most affected community members would even be inclined to participate in an event like Coffee with a Cop. Rather, changing police-community relations is about changing how police interact with the community during their routine patrol activities.

That can be about how individual officers interact with people—something that can be influenced by procedural justice training—or about how the organization as a whole deploys officers to create those interactions, for example, by eliminating traffic stop quotas or even getting rid of traffic stops to reduce the risk of bias. The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice simplifies trust-building interventions into three pillars: enhancing procedural justice, reducing the impact of implicit bias, and fostering reconciliation.

Community policing should be proactive and consistent, and that comes from partnerships with local businesses, government agencies, and residents. A report looking at the impact of community policing on prison reentry discusses the benefits of community-involved police. Everything from opportunities to connect people with social services, to enhanced knowledge of neighborhoods, situations, and contexts allows community policing to deliver results that improve long-term police-community relations.

It’s encouraging to see police invested in getting to know community members through Coffee with a Cop, but I’ll be looking for whether the relationships and attitudes are sustained in the days and months that follow and whether police follow through with deep partnerships to enhance their understanding of, and involvement with, the neighborhoods they serve. It’s going to take something more integrated, comprehensive, and sustained than one day to change community perceptions of police.

Dorothy Smith, right, talks with Miami-Dade county police officer Delma Noel-Pratt, left, during a Coffee with a Cop event at McDonalds, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Miami Gardens, Florida. Photo by Lynne Sladky/AP.


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