With the recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., police departments across the country are under a lot of scrutiny. Questions are being raised about use of force, police militarization and racial profiling.
Against that backdrop, the Juneau Police Department this week launched a new outreach program.
Coffee with a Cop
It’s a busy Wednesday morning at the Heritage Coffee shop on 2nd Street in downtown Juneau. A mix of tourists and locals are sipping lattes and eating fresh-baked treats.
Police Chief Bryce Johnson sits at a table near the front door, talking with Noelle Derse. The young mother of three lives downtown and says she loves it. But she feels like the area is kind of sketchy.
“A couple of years ago it was really bad, broken windows all the time,” Derse says. “Every Saturday morning when we took our walk, just filth and vomit and feces and everything all over the streets.”
Derse says she came to Coffee with a Cop to talk to police about increasing patrols in her neighborhood. Overall, she thinks the Juneau Police Department does a good job.
“They work really well one-on-one with people,” she says. “I just want more. I want to see them more. I want to know they’re out here.”
Larri Spengler is with the Thane Neighborhood Association, a community watch group for residents who live a few miles outside downtown. She calls JPD officers helpful and approachable, and says events like this foster good relations between the police department and the community.
“Especially with recent publicity in the nation about police troubles, I mean, I don’t think we have that sense of that here,” Spengler says. “And this kind of thing would help even make it less likely that people would think of the police as other.”
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At a recent interview in his office, Chief Johnson says he’s followed the events in Ferguson through the media. He’s thought a lot about how he would handle a similar situation, and says it’s important for people to remember that there are a lot of unknowns. But he says one lesson is “we (police) need to learn how to better communicate with the public in general and with the media.”
Since coming to Juneau a little more than a year ago, Johnson has consistently talked about wanting police to be an open and trusted part of the community.
“We don’t live in police states. They call it a thin blue line for a reason,” he says.
Johnson brought the Coffee with a Cop idea with him from Salt Lake City Police Department, where he worked for 20 years. He says trust is important because cops are only part of the crime prevention puzzle.
“When you look at what causes crime it has a lot to do with economic opportunity, it has to do with family status, it has to do with drugs and alcohol,” Johnson says. “These are all problems that the police department cannot fix. So what we have to do is we have to partner with other community agencies, other community entities, other people, and be part of a solution.”
One of the biggest criticisms leveled at police in Ferguson has dealt with the militarization of law enforcement. Johnson thinks that’s an unfair characterization. He says the Juneau Police Department has received some surplus military gear from the federal government. But he says it’s only used under special circumstances and always to ensure the safety of officers and the public.
“I don’t think it is a bad thing the police department is getting this type of protective equipment,” Johnson says. “I think a better conversation would be when do you use it, when do you deploy it?”
Back at the coffee shop, downtown patrol officer Jim Quinto says he doesn’t feel much negativity or hostility toward Juneau police. Quinto grew up here and has been on the force for 17 years. He says efforts like Coffee with a Cop will only improve communication between the department and residents.
“Like when I walk around, I’m constantly going into stores and saying hi to people,” Quinto says. “Just so they know that we’re out there.”
JPD hopes to make Coffee with a Cop an ongoing program with events every month or two in different neighborhoods. Johnson says it doesn’t cost anything, and hopefully it’ll make the department more accessible.
*Editor’s note: This story originally said Larri Spengler was president of the Thane Neighborhood Association. In fact, she’s secretary.