Coffee, cops and community: a formula for building bridges

By Bonnie Rochman / Starbucks Newsroom

It was manager Chris Fortis’s day off when he got the call informing him that his Starbucks store in east Indianapolis had been robbed. Shortly after the doors opened, in the pre-dawn hours of August 2016, a man in a black hoodie, its drawstring cinched so tightly that his face was barely visible, pointed a gun at the shift supervisor and demanded the contents of the cash registers.

The entire episode lasted barely a minute, although it felt like forever to the partners. No one was hurt, but the experience was frightening and Fortis, who had been store manager for less than a year, reached out to his predecessor, Joe Ransburg, who’d spent years behind the counter at Shadeland Ave. and E. 21st St. He figured Ransburg would want to know what had happened. He also figured Ransburg, who knew the area well, would know what steps to take to protect partners and customers.

Ransburg had a ready answer: He told Fortis to place a call to Jim Waters, the deputy chief in charge of the east Indy neighborhood where Fortis’ store is located, to see what could be done.

Waters didn’t hesitate. He said he’d make sure that a few officers would swing by the store in the morning when the doors opened, and again in the evening before the doors locked at 9 p.m. Sure enough, the officers started showing up. They’d come early in the morning and stay a while to chat with Starbucks partners and customers. They’d come at night and do the same thing. “I don’t bat an eye when I see two, three, four police cars in my parking lot when I come in each morning,” said Fortis, a partner for 11 years. “They care and want to talk with people in the community, and customers come up to them to tell them about problems in their neighborhood. It’s like Coffee with a Cop every day.”

‘Police are people just like you’

Wednesday, or “10/4,” is National Coffee with a Cop Day, a time to note that events to forge connections between police and the people they serve have been held in all 50 states and in Europe, Australia and Africa since 2011, when the program began in Hawthorne, Calif., in response to officers brainstorming ways to boost interaction with the community. Starbucks, which committed in February to host 100 Coffee with a Cop events in 2017, has already logged more than 250 events. U.S. stores have more than 90 additional events planned for Wednesday. The company now aims to support as many as 1,000 Coffee with a Cop events across the country in the year ahead.

Sherron Franklin is the police officer who introduced Fortis to Coffee with a Cop, inquiring if he would be interested in hosting an event at his store, which is in a less well-to-do part of town, alongside Interstate 70. She’s also rolled out the program at other Starbucks stores in Indianapolis, including one where a twenty-something with dyed yellow hair happened to come in for a drink during the event. Franklin ushered him over. He recoiled, responding that he doesn’t like the police. “I laughed,” said Franklin, the community relations officer. “I said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to take people at face value. Police are people just like you.’ I asked him, ‘How am I treating you right now?’ He just smiled.” Then they paused for an impromptu photo shoot as Franklin snapped photos of him grinning with some officers.

For Franklin, it was a perfect moment. Coffee with a Cop events help demolish stereotypes. “When people think about cops, they usually think about getting stopped,” said Franklin. “Coffee with a Cop gives us an opportunity to talk to people, to get them to see that we are human.”

In an ideal world, policing transcends the parameters of public safety. Not long ago, Franklin posted on the police department’s Facebook page about a girl she had met who couldn’t afford a dress to wear to high school graduation. The girl was wary when Franklin approached her to offer help, but she agreed to accompany Franklin to a local nonprofit, The Gifted Gown, that outfitted the girl with a black dress and earrings and shoes to match.

One of the Shadeland and 21st Coffee with a Cop attendees, Cynthia Orr, saw that Facebook post. Inspired, she told Franklin that she would go through her closet and donate her unused formalwear to The Gifted Gown. There are a black chiffon dress with long sleeves and a pleated empire waist and a mandarin-collared red and pink sheath that will soon have new owners, thanks to connections made at Coffee with a Cop.

Finding common ground with the African-American community

Some Coffee with a Cop exchanges are even more aspirational. Charles Tony Knight is a long-time activist in the African-American community in Indianapolis. He likes to think of himself as open-minded, able to see many sides of a situation. Thirty years ago, when he was in his twenties, Knight jumped a puddle in the pouring rain when a police car screeched to a halt alongside him. “The next thing I know, I’m looking at a gun,” said Knight. A man had just robbed a store down the street, and the officer had seen Knight running. “I sort of understood, but I also tried to explain to the officer that he may have good reason to stop me, but as a person, I’ve got a gun in my face.”

That incident underscored for Knight the importance of finding common ground. Through an encounter at a Coffee with a Cop event, Knight arranged for a police officer to come undercover to a summer camp he helps run for at-risk youth. The idea was for the kids to get to know the officer as a person, not an authority figure, in hopes that this sort of relationship would lead to mutual respect and better understanding on both sides. The sergeant who participated showed up at least eight times before revealing his credentials. “It may touch only a few of the kids, but at least we’re doing something,” said Knight. “For most African-Americans, their relationship isn’t so good with police officers because they’ve often had more negative contact than positive. I believe that the more conversations you have with someone, the better.”

Not everyone in the black community shares his optimism, but Knight perseveres. “Maybe I’ll do these Coffee with a Cop events for five or 10 years and maybe one of these officers will end up being in command,” said Knight. “Maybe when I say something, they’ll take it more seriously. I’m in this for the long run.”

‘Coffee with Waters:’ Talking trash pick-up, drug deals — and coloring books

For Nikki Salinas, the idea of asking police officers to become a regular presence in her stores and connect with the community has been a turnaround tool. In her first few months as district manager, her 13 stores sustained three armed robberies. The first hold-up was at Chris Fortis’s store, and he suggested that officers assemble for “roll call” at Shadeland, holding their beginning-of-shift meetings over coffee. “We brew up a full batch of coffee and they do roll call with us,” said Salinas. “We haven’t had any more robberies.”

Instead, they’ve watched bonds form as customers talk to cops on neutral footing. They’ll complain about trash pick-up or drug deals unfolding on their streets. They’ll compliment the cops on keeping their communities safe. Armed with coloring books, cops will summon their inner children and color with kids.

The most recent Coffee with a Cop event at Fortis’s store took place Sept. 18. It had special meaning for the partners, the officers and the customers who showed up, because it honored the memory of the officer who made the initial overture to build bridges between cops and the community. In July, Jim Waters, off-duty at the time, was rear-ended on Interstate 70. On the day of his funeral, community members who regularly attend Coffee with a Cop showed up at the police precinct to show their respects, bringing flowers, candy and condolences.

On Sept. 18, at the Shadeland Starbucks, a local flag company unfurled a flag it had designed in memory of Waters. The police commander spoke and a prosecutor did too, recalling that Waters was the first to really work hard at connecting with the community. The community, and Starbucks, is continuing that work. From this time onward, future Coffee with a Cop events will be renamed “Coffee with Waters.”

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‘By us and for us:’ New Starbucks merch inspired by LGBTQ+ community