Lewis Griswold

Coffee with a Cop launches in Visalia

Officer Arlene Pasillas chats with Ralph Chojnacki, left, and Shannon Radabaugh at Coffee with a Cop in Visalia.
Officer Arlene Pasillas chats with Ralph Chojnacki, left, and Shannon Radabaugh at Coffee with a Cop in Visalia. lgriswold@fresnobee.com

Coffee with a Cop, a community outreach program for police that’s catching on nationally, made its debut in Visalia last week when uniformed officers spent two hours meeting and greeting the public at a McDonald’s restaurant.

“No agenda…no speeches! Simply an opportunity to get to know your officers!” is how the police department described it on its Facebook page.

The coffee was free from metal carafes on a table at the McDonald’s at Mary’s Vineyard shopping center in east Visalia.

Officers came and went from 8 a.m to 10 a.m. Wednesday to engage in one-on-one conversations.

“I think the idea is a home run,” said Ralph Chojnacki, a retired retail employee. “The less separation between the public and law enforcement, the better.”

Shannon Radabaugh, a business owner at Mary’s Vineyard, heard about the event and brought her 8-year-old son.

“I think it’s important for children to see,” she said.

Radabaugh expressed concerns about homeless transients.

Aggressive panhandling won’t be tolerated, but “it’s not against the law to be homeless,” said officer Arlene Pasillas, a 13-year veteran.

The McDonald’s franchise enjoyed being the location for Coffee with a Cop.

“It humanizes the officers a little bit,” said Phil White, director of operations for RLMK, Inc., which owns several McDonald’s restaurants in the area.

Coffee with a Cop originated four years ago in Hawthorne in Southern California as the result of a brainstorming session by local police, and has been held in more than 2,000 communities.

Two years ago, a national training program began, and the first international Coffee with a Cop event was held last year in Montreal.

Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar learned about the program at command college and sent a sergeant and senior administrative assistant to a workshop.

“Coffee with a Cop is about making connections with our community,” Salazar said. “It’s a casual atmosphere where officers can come and just spend time talking to people, whether it’s just to chat and develop relationships, or address problems or concerns, in an atmosphere where the officer doesn’t feel they have to run off to the next call.”

There was a soft launch two weeks ago at Panera Bread on Mooney Boulevard, but the McDonald’s event marked the official kickoff.

Humorous moments were frequent.

“Are you a doorman?” one customer asked officer Brian Young as he held the door open for entering customers.

Community service officer Danny Gonzalez took orders at the cash register — under the watchful eye of amused cashiers.

Officer Andrew Swarthout stationed himself at the drive-up window and handed food orders to astonished drive-thru customers.

“Everybody’s surprised, but everybody’s happy,” he said.

Including the drive-thru, officers talked with at least 300 people in the two-hour stretch, Sgt. Damon Maurice said.

The department expects to hold Coffee with a Cop every four to six weeks at various locations around the city.

Lewis Griswold covers the South Valley for The Fresno Bee. He can be reached at 559-441-6104, and on Twitter @fb_LewGriswold