It’s not easy being a cop.
Especially not right now, in the wake of a fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, involving an unarmed man named Michael Brown, who was shot multiple times by a police officer in a late-night encounter that has yet to be completely and factually understood.
But the incident has prompted riots, protests, national outrage – and now an investigation by the FBI and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Here in Manchester, the daily battles include the usual pockets of drug-related crime, and domestic violence.
And on Thursday, officers from Manchester Police Department’s community policing division swarmed the McDonald’s on South Willow Street, where they made a small but significant gesture toward making sure what happened in Ferguson won’t happen here.
They hosted the city’s first Coffee with a Cop, inviting customers to have a free cup of coffee on them, and talk about life in Manchester.
Marge Bienvenue was among those who enjoyed the surprise of free coffee. She is a creature of habit, and stops at the McDonald’s every morning, after Mass.
However, in all her 90 years, sitting down over coffee with a city police officer was a first for her.
“I live alone, so I guess I should be concerned about living in the city. But the police are always there when I need them,” she said.
And sometimes, even when she doesn’t.
“I have one of those medical alerts things that I used to wear around my neck, but one night as I was reading in bed, I guess I somehow hit the button and before I knew it, several police officers were at my door,” said Bienvenue.
In fact, she said, it happened three times, which is why she stopped wearing the alarm around her neck.
“Right now, I feel safe in the city,” said Bienvenue. “They do a good job.”
Officer Paul Rondeau sat with Bienvenue and her friend, Howard McCarthy who, in exchange for the free coffee, gave Rondeau a copy of his music CD – something McCarthy was busy distributing around the restaurant, even to those who weren’t offering free coffee.
Sgt. Brian O’Keefe sipped coffee with Robin Porter and Denise Fay, who were there with a group of adults as part of an Easter Seals program, which helps provide social outings for individuals with disabilities.
They talked about some recent incidents in the city, about the persistent drug problem that has been in the news, and the unrest in Ferguson – and how it affects a police department’s ability to connect with the community.
“What’s happening out there isn’t a national, government issue; it’s a local issue,” said O’Keefe, who has been with Manchester Police since 1996, and knows a thing or two about what it takes to protect and serve a diverse community like this one.
He said the two-hour Coffee with a Cop event was a pilot program for Manchester, modeled after a national initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Justice and Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
According to the official Coffee with a Cop website, the aim is to counter the fact that law enforcement primarily comes into contact with the public during times of emergency, public crisis or emotionally charged situations.
Coffee with a Cop “breaks down barriers and allows for a relaxed, one-on-one interaction,” in hopes of improving relationships between police officers and community members, “one cup of coffee at a time.”
Michael Gambino and his wife, Janelle, owners of the South Willow McDonald’s, made the move from New York to New Hampshire to take over the business four months ago.
He and his wife were circulating, along with the police officers, greeting customers and chatting over coffee, which gave the restaurant chain a true party atmosphere.
“One of the things we started when we got here was offering free coffee to city police officers. When we heard about this opportunity, we wanted to be involved because we really want to give back to the community,” Gambino said.
Lt. James Soucy, who heads the community policing division, said he never worked at a McDonald’s before, but you wouldn’t have known it from the way he handled the drive-thru traffic.
He was a natural.
“I’ve been at the drive-thru window for about 30 minutes now, and they say I’m doing a pretty good job,” Soucy said. “Its been great – the community’s been great, the people have been great. It’s good to see we’re reaching out a little bit, and it works both ways.”
Officer Scott Tardiff spent some time chatting with a table of three retirees, all of them with a cup of coffee in hand, and all of them, with plenty to say.
When asked afterward how he liked getting free coffee from a police officer, one of the three, who identified himself as “just call me Tom V. from East Manchester,” said he appreciated the coffee, very much.
But that he appreciated the police officers even more.
“Thank God for them, that they’re here. Nobody appreciates them more than me,” he said. “Just try being without them.”
O’Keefe said the police will be looking at continuing the Coffee with a Cop events around the city in coming months.
Two more Coffee with a Cop events are scheduled in New Hampshire, according to the official site, on Aug. 22 in Waterville Valley at the Department of Public Safety building and Sept. 16 at the Wiggin Memorial Library in Stratham.
For more information go to www.coffeewithacop.com, or contact Manchester Police Sgt. Brian O’Keefe at email@example.com