OP-ED: Why “Coffee with a Cop” Fails to Bridge the Gap Between the Police and the Policed

Photo: Penn Today

by EMILIA ONUONGA


On October 7th, 2019, Penn Police Department officers were giving out free fidget spinners, pens, and coffee on Locust Walk. When I first saw Coffee with a Cop, as it’s called, I smiled. I was proud of Penn for seemingly taking an initiative to bridge the gap between officers and the community. However, as I reflected on the situation and the individuals whom the officers were talking to, I realized that Coffee with a Cop was far from an effective solution. In fact, it was completely irrational.

2019 was the first year the University of Pennsylvania took part in Coffee with a Cop and, hopefully, the last. Starting in 2011, the Hawthorne Police Department in Hawthorne, California led the first ever Coffee with a Cop event.  Since then, more than 10,000 Coffee with a Cop events have occurred across all fifty states as well as eight other countries. From restaurants to Locust Walk, Coffee with a Cop’s locations vary in location and size. That being said, each has coffee, handouts, and a friendly officer. However, regardless of its outreach, Coffee with a Cop is not as effective as many perceive it to be. Instead, it undermines the true problems between police and the community, and suggests that these problems can be solved through coffee and a quick chat. 

The first problem with Coffee with a Cop is that it appeals to the wrong audience. .  When I first caught sight of the interactions between students and police officers, I observed that  the individuals who stopped to talk to the officers were rarely minority students – they were mostly white. One would think that since the relationship between Black people and police officers is considerably strained, that this would be the target audience in mending relations, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

In December of 2018, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey on people’s opinions on police officers. In doing so, they analyzed different groups’ opinions on the basis of gender, race, age, education, and political preference. 72% of white people believed that officers treat racial and ethnic groups equally, while a staggering 49% of Hispanics and an even lower 33% of Black people believed so. Question after question continued to highlight the overwhelming racial divide regarding opinions about police officers. The groups who have true walls between them and officers are not white individuals, but rather minorities. Coffee with a Cop’s mission is to “[break] down the barriers between police officers and the citizens they serve”. Since there are already low barriers between them and those most likely to engage with them, Coffee with a Cop fails in its mission entirely. 

Furthermore, Coffee with a Cop does not take the necessary steps to achieve their mission statement. Rather, their actions and choices are counterproductive. Take, for example, the locations of Coffee with a Cop. Often occurring anywhere from parks, to restaurants, to Locust Walk, these locations appeal to those with higher socioeconomic statuses. An individual who can afford the time to go to a restaurant and is comfortable enough to talk to an officer most likely comes from a place of privilege. Furthermore, those with a higher socioeconomic status are less likely to think negatively about police officers. In 2016, the Cato Institute conducted a study which analyzed various factors and how those influenced perceptions of police.  Research indicated that 76% of those with an income of more than $100,000 per year thought favorably about police; merely 59% of those with an income less than $30,000 per year felt the same. There is a clear correlation between wealth and favorability towards police – therefore, Coffee with a Cop most likely appeals to a group which already respects and appreciates them. That being said, Coffee with a Cop at Penn is no exception. As of 2017, 71% of Penn students’ came from families in the top 20%. Since Penn is disproportionately wealthy, Coffee with a Cop at Penn is ineffective. If the police truly wanted to break down barriers, they would relocate Coffee with a Cop.

The second problem with Coffee with a Cop is that it is entirely wrong in principle. It is delusional to perceive coffee and a 15 minute chat as having the power to break down barriers. If this quick chat brought an officer closer to a civilian, there must not have been barriers to begin with. Rather than offering trivial gifts, police should primarily focus on their conversations as well as whom they are speaking to.

While I understand Coffee with a Cop chooses casual locations to facilitate comfortable conversations, I urge officers to delve into uncomfortable situations and to truly engage with the community. Rather than wasting time sitting in a local restaurant, I urge officers to visit an elementary school or volunteer at a  homeless shelter in groups. There, police officers can have one-on-one conversations with kids, the homeless, and with those in need of services. Furthermore, officers should engage in areas and activities that are predominantly minority-occupied. Rather than seeing police officers in a place of power which has many negative connotations for minorities, minorities will began to see police officers in a new light. When it comes to Penn’s police department, officers should instead arrange to talk to affinity groups or visit DuBois College House. Additionally, BARS or the Black Student League could host an event with Penn Police officers which features a Penn police panel in order to foster meaningful conversation. 

Penn Police should engage with those who have the most negative thoughts about them. Although this seems difficult, progress does not come easy. Let me clarify, I am in no way against cops.  In fact, I, more than anyone, would love to close the gap between officers and the community – which is why I recognize Coffee with a Cop as ineffective, trivial, and extremely foolish. Let’s turn our attention to better methods. We don’t want your coffee. We don’t want your fidget spinners. We want progress and we want police to actually work for it. 


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