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Alachua Police Department Chief Chad Scott (left) talks with Bobbi and Keith Owens at the Coffee with a Cop event. The Owens were driving to Atlanta and stopped in for a coffee break. (Today photo/RAY CARSON)

ALACHUA – On Friday, Oct. 21, the Alachua McDonalds was full of police, including nine officers from both High Springs and Alachua, as well as the chief of the Alachua Police department. But no crime had been committed, and they weren't serving out tickets. They were serving coffee. Known as Coffee with a Cop, the event is part of a nationwide program that helps police officers interact with the citizens they protect and build better communications with the community.

Typical encounters between the police and citizens happen when they are called for assistance or pulled over by an officer. These interactions are often stressful and confrontational, which puts the officers in a situation where he or she is seen as an authority figure, and not as a fellow human being. The idea behind the program is to allow an environment where the public and the police officers can interact over a cup of coffee on a personal level and where the public can ask any questions they may have about the department or policies.

The program was started in 2011 in Hawthorne, California, by the local police department. At the time they were trying to restructure their department to a more community oriented model where the officers worked within the community, so there was a familiarity between officers and the people they protected. As they considered ways of building community trust, it was suggested that maybe a simple idea like sitting down at a local coffee house could allow officers to interact in a more casual way with the citizens It could also have the benefit of putting a human face on the person behind the badge.

The program was such a success, that other police departments were soon emulating the program. In 2013, a national training program was established by the Hawthorne Police Department and The University of Illinois Center for Public Safety and Justice to help train police departments in better community interaction through the Coffee with a Cop program. The program continued to expand, including in other countries worldwide.

Michael Streicher, the owner of the Alachua McDonalds, had heard about the program and approached the Alachua Police Department to see if they would be interested in partnering by hosting an event. The Alachua Public Information Officer, Sargent Jesse Sandusky, had also heard of the program and was looking for ways to create better communications and get feedback from the public. They agreed to host the event and expanded it to include the High Springs Police Department as well.

“We wanted to create an opportunity for officers to interact with the public and allow the citizens the ability to express any concerns they might have directly to the officers. We wanted to create a positive setting where everyone could discuss what is best for the community,” Sandusky said. The event was originally planned for Oct. 7, 2016, which has been officially recognized as National Coffee with a Cop day. But with the threat of Hurricane Matthew approaching the area on the same day, the event was postponed. With a State of Emergency declared, all officers would be on duty for the hurricane. After the storm passed, the event was rescheduled for Oct. 21.

At 9 a.m., Sargent L.A. Hunter of the Alachua Police Department began serving coffee to every customer that came in the door at McDonalds. Other officers mingled among the customers to answer any questions or address any concerns.

“This gives our officers the opportunity to talk to their fellow citizens. Some people see officers as an authority figure, but they are your neighbors, with the same goals, dreams and families,” Sandusky said. “Nationally, there have been some shooting incidents in the news lately that have created mistrust among the public. We wanted to overcome that image. We want people to feel trust with the officers and identify them as your neighbor as well.”

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