CHICAGO: In a diverse Chicago neighborhood where dozens of languages are spoken, two police officers are visiting a McDonald’s restaurant. They have a jug of coffee in hand and are offering a friendly ear, willing to listen to anyone who wants to have a chat. Welcome to “Coffee with a Cop” day, an initiative held Wednesday in Chicago and across the United States for police to bond with the public. The effort comes at a time of deep tensions and distrust between police and the communities they serve. “It’s been positive,” said Officer Librada Godinez about her conversations at the Chicago McDonald’s, all prompted by an initial offer of a free cup of coffee. “(It) puts a smile on their face and they’re more comfortable talking to us,” Godinez said.
Law enforcement in many American cities have a lot of work to do to build public trust. The last year and a half alone has been searing for American police, with one highly-publicized case after another of questionable police shootings, often involving minorities. Prosecutors have had difficulty securing convictions against cops, resulting in street demonstrations that sometimes turn violent-leading to even more tensions. St Louis, located along the Mississippi River southwest of Chicago, was the most recent example. Police there clashed with protesters in September, after a former cop was acquitted in the 2011 fatal shooting of a black man. Protests have persisted for weeks, with the latest one Tuesday night.
“Across the country, between minority communities and police… there is a gulf,” said Brian Jackson, a criminal justice researcher at the RAND corporation. “When the relationship is strained, you get crimes that aren’t reported.” Chicago resident Rashonda Cole can understand why fellow African Americans might distrust police, due to the city’s history of documented abuses targeting Latinos and African Americans. But, the 35-year-old said outreach efforts can repair the damage. “If they have stuff like this every day, and you get a chance to stop in and talk and have a cup of coffee with an officer, I think a lot of people would have a different sense of thinking when it comes to the police,” Cole said.
A difficult past
“Coffee with a Cop” began six years ago in Hawthorne, a small Southern California city with a diverse population near the Los Angeles airport. It grew into a program funded by the US Department of Justice, with training for officers in cities across the US and in Canada. This is the second year of the nationwide event, held annually on the first Wednesday of October. For Chicago police, it is an opportunity to undo decades of damage. Last year, the city paid $5.5 million in reparations to 57 people tortured for confessions over two decades ending in 1991. It remains to be seen whether coffee alone is enough to address long-standing, systemic issues. In January, a federal civil rights probe found Chicago police routinely engaged in unreasonable use of force. And on Wednesday, as cops were chatting over coffee, a new lawsuit sought reforms in how Chicago police interact with the disabled.
Chicago resident Lee Maglaya who was at the McDonald’s with her autistic son, listed a litany of complaints as Officer Godinez patiently listened. But none were of the police. Godinez heard about Maglaya’s neighbor who shoved her son. “Yeah, that would have been a battery,” Godinez told the 69-year-old woman. Maglaya talked of her elderly friend assaulted by robbers. Godinez offered a pocket-sized handheld alarm device, and promised to follow up with additional help. “Thank you for even having this,” Maglaya responded. “I think it’s a great thing.” Godinez’s partner David Hallock said individual interactions are what rebuild relationships. “It’s more of an incremental ‘baby step’ thing, where it can happen a little bit at a time,” Hallock said. “We eventually get perceived as being regular human beings, just like the rest of the world.”_ AFP