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Coffee with a Cop

Local law enforcement connects with community

Deputy sheriff Carlos Gutierrez gets a hug from a young admirer.

Deputy sheriff Carlos Gutierrez gets a hug from a young admirer.

The event looks very much like a cocktail party: folks standing around or sitting at little tables, sipping and chatting, getting to know one another. Except … it’s 10 a.m. and they’re drinking coffee and about a quarter of the people are dressed in law enforcement uniforms.

It’s called Coffee with a Cop and it’s been happening about once a month in the Pikes Peak region for two years now.

The initial program was started six years ago in California, and El Paso County is the first to institute it successfully in Colorado, says Deputy Carlos Gutierrez, director of community relations for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office. He grew up near where the program was initiated and has modeled the local effort after the original one. 

“The whole idea is, ‘How about we sit down with people and just have a cup of coffee and talk about what concerns them?’” he says. 

A fall event at Pikes Perk on North Academy Boulevard drew about 40 or 50 residents and about a dozen officers, including Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey, El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elders and Fountain Police Chief Chris Heberer. (The three of them, incidentally, have all known each other and been friends for many years and cooperative efforts like this one are becoming the norm.)

The first local event, held in Fountain in 2015, drew so many people, the sheriff’s office decided to expand and so approached Carey to involve the CSPD. Events have drawn as many as 70 residents and dozens of law enforcement officers, Gutierrez says. 

It’s very casual. Everybody buys their own coffee (no taxpayer dollars spent) or the coffee shop provides it, and the law enforcement officers donate their time or stop by while on a patrol shift. 

They say people ask about everything from the use of drones to why response times are sometimes slow. They share opinions about gun control (pro or con) and they want to know more about body cameras and how they will be used. 

But the No. 1 concern is about traffic safety, Carey says.

“It’s a chance to talk to people one-on-one in a non-crisis situation,” Carey adds. “By talking with them, I find out what people worry about – and it may not be the same things law enforcement thinks they worry about.”

“It’s a great way to connect with the community, to find out what really concerns them,” Elder says.

“And a lot of people just want to thank us for our service,” Heberer says. “It’s nice to hear that.”

Some people who come to the events saw it posted on their neighborhood Nextdoor.com website. Others got an email via the Neighborhood Watch program or saw it on a local community calendar. Others stumble upon the event when they go to their favorite coffee shop for a cup of morning joe. They often join the conversation, glad of the unexpected opportunity to ask questions.

So far, events have been well mannered and respectful, they agree.

“A lot can be accomplished when you meet someone face to face and treat them with respect,” says David Rodriguez, a retired law enforcement officer who attended the local Citizens Academy, then got hired as a security technician by the sheriff’s office. “It’s a lot harder to hate someone when you get to know them, even if you don’t agree on everything.”

Gutierrez says it’s been “a very powerful way” to offset all the bad publicity that residents have seen on national news about the rift between law enforcement and communities. They’re even doing some programs in Spanish as part of the outreach effort.