Cops were on the scene at L’s Caffe on 24th and Florida at 8 a.m. on Friday.
A man in a blue Adidas jumpsuit asked for a photo. Not of the crime scene, because there was none, but of himself with an SFPD officer and cadet standing outside the café handing out “SFPD” stickers. Officer Jamie Garon explained to the man it was his lucky day: he’d stumbled on National Coffee with a Cop Day.
Not all guests were so pleased.
Inside, Garon approached a large, middle-aged man in a black shirt. She offered a friendly greeting, but before she could finish introducing herself, the man said, “No cops, please.”
“I have experiences with cops,” he went on, tension percolating in the sparsely populated room.
“Was it with me?” Garon asked. She paused and asked again. “Was it with me?”
The man looked back towards his coffee. “You can’t change my experiences,” he said.
Garon walked away. “Can’t change everyone,” she shrugged.
As police departments across the country face harsh criticism over policing tactics, bias and officer-involved shootings, Friday marked the first official National Coffee with a Cop Day. The event technically began in 2011, and SFPD has participated before, but this year departments nationwide took part on the same day.
Officers at L’s Caffe were quick to point out Mission Station hosts a number of events throughout the year, and emphasized the importance of mingling with residents in a more neutral environment.
“It’s not every day people feel comfortable to approach us on a casual, more social basis,” said Sergeant Davin Cole.
Police officers shuffled in and out of the cafe for most of the morning, outnumbering community members, most of whom had no idea there was a reason the cafe was packed with police.
Two officers sat and talked about national crime with an off-duty crime reporter. Another set of officers talked sports with a man whose poodle snoozed on the floor tiles. A group of young women said the presence of so many police officers made them uncomfortable.
“We didn’t know if we could eat here,” one said.
Travis Wellman and Scott Albritton chose to meet at the cafe after reading about the event on NextDoor, though in the end they didn’t engage with any officers. Both agreed community outreach on behalf of the department was a step in the right direction, but wondered if infrequent, lightly promoted events like this could have a real impact on improving the public’s relationship to police.
“I shouldn’t have to think too deep into my memory about the last time I talked to a cop,” said Wellman, a Bernal Heights resident.
“I think they this should be the first Friday of every month,” Albritton suggested.
Last week, the city supervisors grilled Acting Police Chief Toney Chaplin on the findings of the so-called Blue Ribbon Panel, a commission created by District Attorney George Gascón after a series of racist and homophobic text messages sent by SFPD officers were made public. The panel found pervasive bias and racism in the department and the supervisors roasted Chaplin about his political ties to the police union and censured him for the absence of a formal response to the report’s worrisome findings.
On Friday, officers steered clear of the aforementioned tension and scrutiny of the department. “We just worry about the day-to-day,” one officer said. Sgt. Cole acknowledged it was “uncomfortable” having so many of the city’s institutions at odds.
Cole said he’d like to see less reactionary policing policies, and more police chiefs willing to admit wrongdoing, and be more forthcoming to the public about the reasoning behind disciplinary action, or the lack thereof, in controversial cases.
Officers seemed to agree that body cameras would likely bring about more transparency — and show the public they’re doing their jobs correctly.
As for use-of-force reform, Sgt. Cole thinks tasers, which the Police Commission currently forbids, would be a common-sense measure to curb officer-involved shootings in San Francisco, and elsewhere. He used the death of Mario Woods, who was shot more than 20 times by five police officers in Bayview last December, as an example.
“Every officer out there and every officer who watched the video said: ‘If they had tasers, it may have been a different outcome.’”
He also suggested more informal interactions between officers and the communities they serve as a way to bridge the gap between police and residents. In a perfect world, he would simply ask the bigwigs to exit the conversation.
“The politicians — they’d have to leave the room. I like our bosses in our department, but anybody at the command level — leave the room. Any community activists — leave the room. Bring the [community members] it’s affecting directly.”
“You can’t have an open conversation with someone who has an agenda,” he added.
In the end, the police and the institutions that oppose them share a strikingly similar goal. Activists and politicians call for an end to dehumanizing police tactics, and the police, in turn, aim to be more than just their characteristic blue uniforms.
“We just want people to see us as humans,” Cole said.