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Why Coffee, Not Cars, Matters To These Cops

Bonds are rarely born in the cool conditioned air inside a police car.

Officer Roger Collins knows this. He works in the Louisville Metro Police Department's First Division and makes an effort to get out of his cruiser as often as he can.

He'd rather walk the neighborhood streets -- play basketball with kids and gripe about overgrown grass with residents. Patrolling with no patrol car, he said, is the best way for police to build relationships with people.

And building relationships is key to safe communities, he added.

"You need to know the officers that serve your community," Collins said.

In an effort to help residents get to know their police, Collins helps organize the First Division's Coffee With A Cop meeting series.

Every few weeks, Collins and a handful of other uniformed police officers crowd into a coffee shop in the neighborhoods within the First Division, which includes downtown and surrounding neighborhoods such as Russell, Portland and Butchertown.

The regular meetings are informal, relaxed and meant to give residents a space to meet with cops face-to-face and just talk.

"We talk about anything they want to talk about," Collins said.

Conversations can bring criticism, praise and questions. And as tensions build between police and residents across the nation, the topic of relationship-building comes up. A lot.

Over the past several months, LMPD officials have been hosting a string of community conversations with adults and young people alike. Officers, including Chief Steve Conrad, have also participated in vigils and peace walks.

The recent police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, coupled with last week’s ambush murder of five police officers in Dallas, have led to a chorus of calls for solidarity among law enforcement and citizens.

Talk on just how to do this often leads to the concept of community policing -- getting out of the car and engaging with residents when crime isn't occurring.

“There’s evidence that when police engage the public, when they form partnerships with the community, when they police with the people rather than do policing to them, then the public has greater trust and confidence in the police,” said Gary Cordner, a Kutztown University criminal justice professor and expert on community policing.

Cordner, who is also the former dean of Eastern Kentucky University’s College of Justice and Safety, said proper community policing can help officers see and understand the underlying conditions that lead to crime.

During last month's Metro Council budget negotiations, members peppered Conrad about the frequency of community policing efforts, such as how often officers conduct foot patrols out of their cars.

Conrad told the council committee that officers had reported more than 900 foot patrols this year. LMPD officials have yet to fulfill an open records request from WFPL News to examine those reports.

Why Don't We Know One Another?

On a recent weekday morning, in a crowded Starbucks on Fourth Street in downtown Louisville, about a half-dozen officers milled about, sipping coffee and chatting up just about everyone who walked in.

For a few, the talk turned to community policing, something many officers in the First Division pride themselves on.

Officer Michael Jackson, a 10-year veteran of LMPD, said the basis of community policing is building relationships.

"It's a must," he said. "We're in this community together, so the bottom line is if I'm a part of this community, if you're a part of this community, why don't we know one another?"

Jackson admits that in recent months, getting to know residents has gotten a bit tougher. Some people have lost faith in their police, he said.

That tension doesn't deter Jackson from putting himself in front of people.

"We've got to get out there and let them know that we are a positive influence in our community, and we want a positive interaction with our community," he said.

That's what Troy Cheatham wants to see. He lives in West Louisville, an area of the city struggling most with gun violence and other crime.

He said police in cars can't focus on people like police on sidewalks or porches.

Sitting in the Starbucks, Cheatham said he tried to get his 20-year-old son to accompany him to meet the police that patrol his neighborhood.

"My son is scared of the police," he said.

Yet, he thinks that's due, in part, to his son's unwillingness to make himself noticed by the police. Cheatham praised foot and bike patrols, and anything police can do to get closer to people, but he stressed that residents also need to make an effort to be more open with police.

"If you're not noticeable, then of course you're going to be scared of a cop," he said.

Wired To Be A Cop

Collins said the murder of five police officers in Dallas shook him and the entire police community.

"After something like that, that’s something that an officer has to sit down, talk to his family, pray about and think about the next move," he said.

For him, it wasn’t a hard choice. He said he’s wired to be cop.

And Collins, like Jackson and many other police officers in LMPD's First Division, is going to continue to put on his uniform, get out of the car and try to build back the crumbling bond between people and police.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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