The Aiken Department of Public Safety brewed up a hot pot of coffee – and good conversation with residents – as part of the department's new outreach effort on Thursday morning.
The inaugural Coffee with a Cop allowed officers from Aiken Public Safety, including Chief Charles Barranco, to meet and chat with Aiken residents over breakfast at McDonald's on York Street.
The purpose of the nationwide initiative, which began in California, is to bring police and community members together in an informal, neutral space to discuss community issues, build relationships and drink coffee.
Cpl. Jennifer Bickel helped get the initiative started in Aiken after another officer read about it in a law enforcement magazine.
“We decided it was a really good concept for us, and it fits right into our Aiken Safe Communities initiative, just sitting down with the community and trying to develop and strengthen those relationships,” she said.
Aiken Public Safety decided to host the first event at McDonald's because that is where the very first Coffee with a Cop event was held in California, Bickel said. Thursday's event was reportedly the first in the state of South Carolina.
“I'm going to try to keep going all around the city and including and incorporating more and more businesses at varied locations as we move along,” she said.
Bickel estimated about 25 residents came and spoke with officers during the hour they were in the restaurant.
“We just chit-chat about whatever they want to talk about,” she said. “A lot of this is everyday chit-chat or things they've seen. Some people from neighborhoods want to talk about what's going on in their neighborhoods. I stress that we're interested in the good and the bad.”
Carisa Brown heard about the event Thursday morning on a TV report.
“I said, 'That would be the perfect opportunity to get some of the concerns I have to the ears of the police in the area, just to let them know that I'm here and that I am concerned about different things,'” she said. “I want to watch out for them, and I want to protect my neighbors.”
Brown said she was particularly concerned with security in her neighborhood, which has seen a spike in vehicle break-ins recently.
“I'm thinking, 'If they're doing this, what next?'” she said. “If we can nip it in the bud now, then we don't have to worry about somebody getting hurt later. They've given me some really good ideas.”
Bickel said it's important for the residents and officers to get to know each other outside of emergency or stressful situations.
“When we're in those situations where they call us there for a specific purpose, there's a time crunch or maybe they just don't feel comfortable veering off that specific topic because they think we're there to handle that, and a lot of times we have to go somewhere else kind of quickly,” she said. “Here, it's more relaxed, there's more time and it's just a very informal setting.”
Barranco called Aiken Public Safety's relationship with the community “paramount.”
“We can't do it by ourselves, but we also just want to have a conversation. Over a cup of coffee, a lot of things get solved,” he said. “We've had people call dispatch all day and say, 'Hey, how long are y'all gonna be there? We wanted to show up.'”
Pam Powers, owner and operator of McDonald's on York Street, had heard about Coffee with a Cop before and was excited for her restaurant to host the first event.
“It's a great opportunity for the community to come on a 'not getting a speeding ticket' basis,” she said. “They can come in a different setting.”
Aiken Public Safety is planning to hold Coffee with a Cop each month. August's event will be at McDonald's on Pine Log Road.
Any local cafes or restaurants that would like to host a Coffee with a Cop event can call Bickel at 803-642-7620 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012.
He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.