The weekday morning rush is in full effect at the McDonald’s in Concord’s South End. Customers are ordering Egg McMuffins at the counter; commuters are lined up in the drive-thru lane.
Oh, and nine members of the Concord Police Department are here, including Lieutenant John Thomas.
"I’ve got a little bit of everybody here," Thomas says, surveying his colleagues. "I’ve got a domestic violence officer here, I've got a couple patrol officers. Actually, the chief’s here, Chief Osgood, Deputy Chief Keith Mitchell's here. And I've got a few bike officers here."
With a police presence of this size, you’d be forgiven for wondering if some horrible crime had taken place. But Thomas says, no, the officers are just here to talk. "I was chatting with a very nice few ladies that walk every day in the South End of the city," he says. "They were telling me a couple things about what was going on in the neighborhood - trash issues, letting the animals run wild in the neighborhood..."
Concord is the latest community to take part in a program called Coffee With a Cop, which is almost exactly as its name suggests: officers sit down for coffee with members of the community to talk, and to listen.
The program started in Hawthorne, California, in 2011. Sergeant Chris Cognac, one of the co-founders, says police wanted a way to reach out to people they might only see during traffic stops or emergency calls. "I call those people Joe Lawnmower," Cognac says. "The guy that you wave at when you’re driving down the street in your police car and he’s mowing his lawn but he’s never talked to you? We were looking for something that was universal, and everybody eats and pretty much everybody drinks coffee. The beauty about Coffee With a Cop is that we drop it into where the community already is. We don’t count on people coming there; we count on Joe Lawnmower who stops off for a cup of coffee on the way to work, and we happen to be there."
Of course, the idea of chatting over food and drink may have also occurred to this department because, well, food is often on the mind of Cognac. "I used to be on the Food Network," he explains. "I used to be the host of a show called The Hungry Detective."
“And then I was a judge on Iron Chef, and some other shows, Alton Brown’s show, things like that. It was fun.”
The US Department of Justice took notice of the program in Hawthorne, and offered a community policing grant for Cognac and his colleagues to offer Coffee With a Cop to other departments. One of the earliest to try it out was the police department in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. Chief David Noyes says his officers and the many part-time residents of his resort town now know each other much better.
"Nobody’s come in and given us the information breaking up a drug ring in town or anything like that, and it's mostly minor stuff," Noyes says. "But there are a number where people just say, I don't really think I should call the police, but maybe next time I see one, I'll let them know."
In Concord, Lieutenant John Thomas hopes his department will soon see those same benefits from the program. "Most people, when they tell you, hey, I had contact with a police officer, it's usually because they got stopped, or something happened and they called us to respond to an incident," he says. "We're trying to open up the doors a little more so people feel more comfortable approaching and chatting with a police officer."
Thomas may be a big believer in Coffee With a Cop, but as for coffee itself? "Actually I don’t drink coffee," he says. "I never have, believe it or not. Everybody’s always got that joke, the cop with the coffee and the doughnut, so I don’t eat either of those two."
Thomas may end up having that cup of coffee after all, though. He’s already planning another Coffee With a Cop event a few weeks from now.