By Shannon Prather
The Star Tribune
COLUMBIA HTS., Minn. — Dolores Strand greets the Columbia Heights police chief in Polish — a nod to the city's and her own heritage — for what's become a regular coffee date.
Strand, friend Pat Sowada and others chitchat with officers. The topic of conversation meanders from the State Fair to first jobs, Columbia Heights' sister city in Poland and their own city's recent success in combating crime.
It's casual. There are no talking points or agendas.
A year after winning the 2012 International Association of Chiefs of Police Community Policing Award for cities under 20,000, department brass are still looking for new ways to connect with their city. Their latest bright idea: Coffee with a Cop.
Pick a local hot spot, brew some coffee and start a conversation. Anyone is welcome to stop by and ask a question, tell a story or just listen in.
The first one was at McDonald's in September and attracted a crowd of 30. The second, at Johnson Bacon & Egg Cafe, was so popular it became a standing-room-only event. And the most recent coffee talk was in the library basement last week.
The coffee dates have developed a bit of a following. Strand and Sowada have attended all three.
"They are a great group of community protectors," Strand said. "Their outreach is so genuine."
The department started hosting the coffee dates this fall after an item about the idea appeared in a police magazine. It seemed simple enough and the price was right: virtually free.
"Let's not overthink this. Let's just do this," explained officer Terry Nightingale, who oversees community policing efforts. "Let's reach out to our community on every single level we can think of."
The inner-ring suburb of 20,000 is 36 percent minority and 18 percent foreign-born, so it's critical to constantly be working on those positive community relations, officers say. Many immigrant communities approach American law enforcement with suspicion and distrust because of police corruption in their native countries, Nightingale said.
"We are just trying to put ourselves out there for that dialogue," said Police Chief Scott Nadeau. "It's nice because it's a non-threatening environment."
Usually around five officers attend each coffee date. Residents often ask about quality-of-life issues — traffic enforcement, graffiti and "Can my neighbor really do this?" Nadeau said.
At last week's coffee talk, Strand and Sowada caught up with Capt. Lenny Austin. Everyone shared a story about their first paying job: delivering newspapers, baby-sitting.
"It's such a good rapport. They are easy to talk to," Sowada said. "I think it's wonderful."
They also discussed the city's growing diversity, and Austin shared a story about a pickup basketball game between officers and teens where some officers insisted on a full-court matchup.
Advantage teens, Austin explained.
Nightingale said the community policing efforts continue to work. Crime in the city remains at a 25-year low. It's declined 43 percent in five years.
"Crime is down across the state, but it's down here more," Nightingale said.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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