Click through the gallery.
MANCHESTER, NH – Free coffee was an unexpected perk of showing up at Cafe la Reine on Thursday for Gerry Benoit, 86, and Angela Martineau, 70.
“We had no idea there would be free coffee today, but it was a pleasant surprise,” said Martineau. It was the first time the two friends had ventured to the Elm Street Cafe.
“I used to walk up and down Elm Street all the time,” said Benoit. “But I stopped when all the people started coming around asking for money.”
Benoit and Martineau chatted with Lt. Brian O’Keefe over their free coffees about the pressure they’ve felt to give money to panhandlers on the street. And that is exactly what the Coffee with a Cop program is designed to do – break down barriers and bring police officers and residents together in a casual setting.
“But I think the police have stopped the panhandling now, haven’t they?” said Benoit.
Martineau said she had a hard time saying “no” to the panhandlers, because she was always taught to help her neighbor and “do unto others.”
“I had one guy who said it was his kid’s birthday and that his car was broke down, so I gave him six dollars. I saw him a few weeks later and he asked me for more money, and I said, ‘no thank you.’ You just trust that they really need the money, but honestly, you really don’t know who to trust,” said Martineau.
She said Chief Nick Willard gave her some solid advice.
“He said not to give any money to anybody,” Martineau said.
“And I think if I take out my wallet, they’d probably grab it,” said Benoit.
A total of 65 free coffees were distributed to customers, some who made the trip just to shake Willard’s hand and thank him for the job he’s doing. Others, like Ben Demarzo, tried to pay for their coffee, despite Willard’s insistence that it was free.
“I had no idea it was free coffee day. I didn’t feel right taking it,” said Demarzo, who finally agreed to take the free coffee from Willard after he told Demarzo that he’d cuff him and book him if he didn’t put his money away.
Willard said he’s enjoying every opportunity to get out and interact with residents, and is “blown away” by the respect people in the city have for the position of police chief.
“One gentleman told me that he was a recovering crack addict, and he’s been sober for three months. He said he wanted to thank me because he had seen me doing a ‘park and walk’ on Concord Street – he saw me walking the neighborhood. We’d had some issues on South Street, so I was out there to talk to the neighbors directly to see if our initial gun suppression initiative was working,” Willard said. “For some reason it just struck him, to see the chief of police in a neighborhood where they have problems, it meant a lot.”
Willard said one of his initiatives is to have more of his officers, including commanding officers, get out into the neighborhoods on foot regularly as a way to build relationships with the community.
Cafe la Reine owner Alex Puglisi said customers seemed excited to see the officers serving coffee and working the register.
“We’ve always had a good relationship with the police,” said Puglisi. “They know our concerns and always respond quickly. I think if you communicate your issues with them, they will do everything they can to fix them.”
Willard said he first met Puglisi at a meeting during which she told him about a chronic issue affecting her early-shift employees.
“She told me about the fear her employees had as they were parking in the parking garage early in the morning. They were feeling unsafe because there were a lot of vagrants inside the parking garage – even though there weren’t any interactions with them, they felt unsafe. We reached out to the midnight shift officer and told the men they couldn’t be sleeping there, first of all. Then he referred them to the shelter. The next day they were back, so he cited all of them, and that ended the problem,” Willard said.
As a result of her input, the police worked with the city to add some lighting in the garage that wasn’t working, and started checking the garages at intervals as a routine part of police patrols.
“Within a week I have Alex calling me to say thank you, and that it was a completely different ballgame,” Willard said.