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Your Questions and Concerns for Police Over a Cup of Coffee

Scott Harvey
Chief Williams (left), speaks with two officers outside Big Momma's following a Coffee with the Chief session in August.

City councils have public hearings, school districts have parent-teacher conferences, and politicians have town hall meetings. These are among the existing and more popular forums through which citizens can express opinions, show support, or file a complaint.

And as the call for more transparency and community engagement from various agencies continues to grow, the opportunity to get in your two cents is also on the rise.

Welcome to Big Momma’s Coffee and Espresso Bar along Commercial Street in north Springfield, where on an August morning Police Chief Paul Williams enters around 7 a.m. to grab a morning brew and mingle with citizens.

Coffee with the Chief is a monthly community engagement session, which rotates among coffee houses throughout town. It began roughly five years ago, shortly after Williams became police chief, as a way to interact with, get to know and be more accessible to the community, he says.

“Planned on doing it for a year; first year, and then I I’d figure everything would be fine. It was really well attended over that year every month; anywhere from five to 30 people. I actually stopped it for two months after the first year, and then I got some complaints,” Williams said.

The demand was high, so Williams reinstated the sessions. And with the exception of a miserable winter morning one year, he says there’s been at least one person attend each month. On average, attendance ranges from between 15-20 these days, according to Williams, with topics as mixed as a coffee house drink menu.

“Sometimes it’s just to compliment us on what we’re doing; sometimes it’s actually just to get to meet me, and sometimes people come with some complaints or concerns. Most of the time, though, it’s just general conversation about whatever’s going on,” he says. 

Katie Webb, president of the Doling Neighborhood Association, attended for the first time to talk to the chief about possible funding for the PAL Program, a community-building initiative between police and youth.  

“He did say that if I put together a volunteer program where maybe I got some teenagers from the local high school or local high schools he could find volunteer officers who could go out and interact with them, and Parks Department has said that they would give us free access to their facilities so that maybe we could do a basketball tournament or something to interact; so that’s a possibility as well.”

Jeff Cornelius, another first timer to the session, initially just planned to come and listen. And he was intrigued when learning that Chief Williams was working to recruit new officers to the department.

“I do have friends that live up in Illinois by Chicago that would actually like to get out of that area and move into more of an area that’s more safe to work in.”

Cornelius, who works overnights with UPS freight, is also curious about increased patrols of commercial vehicles coming through town.

Then there’s Rita Silic, a member of Citizens Alert Patrol, which is a more interactive type of neighborhood watch. She wanted to share with the chief what’s happening in her neighborhood and follow up on existing issues.

“It just makes us feel that we have a better sense of say what’s happening in our community, and we know from the top down what’s happening as well. So it’s good communication going back and forth.”

Depending on the attendance, the chief may bounce from small group to small group, or individual to individual, to interact with citizens. He asks the media that his conversations with the public not be recorded to protect any personal concerns or issues that are brought up.

There is, however, time for broad group discussion and questions from the media, which on this day referenced SPD’s new Virtual Mobile Crisis Intervention program and its new satellite office on the lower floor of the recently re-opened Heer’s Building downtown.

“So this [office] I think will be more visible, specifically on the square and downtown. And then as we look at who needs to be assigned where and pulling people work special events and having people coming and going from there I think… you’ll see a more visible presence than we had in the past in the downtown area.”

There’s no presentation, there’s no lecture, Williams says.

“Literally anybody came come with anything.”  

And while he doesn’t mandate anybody from his department to attend, he’s often joined by officers who are also seeking public feedback or can help answer questions.

“I think they’ve discovered if they weren’t here that I’ve come back with assignments or tasks. And so it’s worked out very well if I have a couple of my commanders here and somebody’s got an issue and this is an investigative issue, I can turn right to someone from investigations and say, ‘Hey look into this or follow up on this,’ and really connect those people where [otherwise] they may have to go through one or two layers. The same thing on the operations side,” Williams said.

Katie Webb says Coffee with the Chief was not what she expected and pleasantly surprised with the format.

“Chief Williams is going out of his to meet new people. It’s not this click where he’s sitting in a corner and he’s got his yes men around and their nodding at him… and that’s not what it is,” said Webb.

Williams says that as a police officer, you never know what’s going to happen once you don the uniform and come to work. It’s much like grabbing a coffee and speaking with citizens, he says, in that you never know what who will show up or what the conversations will be.

The next Coffee with the Chief will take place sometime in October. Find the schedule here.