Caffeine and conversation flowed freely last Wednesday morning, as the Richmond Police Department served cups of steaming joe to community members during its Coffee with a Cop Day. The event, one of many hosted by RPD throughout the year, is part of a national effort to improve the relationship between officers and communities.
A handful of RPD cops and other staff members stood around a police truck, staged in a mall parking lot at the corner of Meeker Avenue and the Marina Bay Parkway. Over the course of an hour, roughly a dozen community members laughed, chatted and sipped coffee.
The atmosphere was warm and genial, despite serious conversation topics. Richmond Police Chief Allwyn Brown listened as one woman expressed concerns about gun violence in the city and shared fears about the recent Las Vegas shooting.
“There’s no script for this,” Brown said while gesturing to the groups talking around him. He described the event as an opportunity for members of the public to raise questions and engage with officers on their own terms.
The talking points were as diverse as the people themselves. Patricia Carlin is a Richmond resident who lives on the same block as the police department headquarters. She said she was curious about police presence on her street, and showed up for coffee to learn more about response times in her area. Another man simply wanted to meet the beat cop assigned to his neighborhood.
“We’re not a big city, but we have big-city issues,” said Brown, referring to his earlier conversation about gun violence.
He added that the event’s most rewarding moments came when citizens sought him out to celebrate specific officers. There’s plenty of work to be done, he said, but the positive reinforcement was good to hear.
Lori Talps, another Richmond resident, said that coming to the event was about “supporting my police department any way I can.” She moved to the city three years ago, and attended RPD’s inaugural Community Safety Academy this spring, because she wanted to learn more about what was going on in her neighborhood. She ended up with a deeper understanding of the department.
The academy, now in its second iteration, is a class of roughly 30 students that meets once a week and covers different aspects of policing in the East Bay.
Michelle Milam is the RPD’s public information officer. She said both the Safety Academy and Coffee with a Cop are part of the department’s long-term plan to build human connections within the community.
“The only time you call police is when you’re in crisis,” Milam said. “If we’re not intentional about building those relationships, they’re not going to happen.”
She said she understands why there can be barriers between the community and cops.
“I did not have a great relationship with the police. The only time I saw them was when something bad happened,” she said about her own experience growing up in Richmond.
But things changed for Milam when she started working on a community board as a teenager, making decisions and interacting with officers on a personal level. Now, she said she’s looking for ways to get more young people engaged.
“Big forums don’t work. We need smaller groups where there’s opportunity for one-on-one talks,” Milam explained.
The event last Wednesday was conspicuously absent of young people, but Milam resolved to keep trying. She ended the morning brainstorming with another long-time resident on ways to get more youth interested and engaged.