SAN JOSE -- In the ongoing effort to forge bonds with a community that's often wary of the intentions of those sworn to protect and serve, San Jose police on Sunday held their third "Coffee with a Cop" event at the predominantly black Emmanuel Baptist Church.
"People have had bad experiences," said the Rev. Jason Reynolds, who has striven to put the church at the forefront of faith-based institutions pushing for better police accountability and community relationships. "Not necessarily with San Jose, but from other areas. There hasn't been a big thing that has happened in San Jose -- but there will be. And hopefully we can all see across the aisle when that happens."
Those big things -- the high-profile police shootings of black men in Minnesota and Baton Rouge and the slayings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge -- happened after the Sunday afternoon event was planned. But police and attendees agreed that the fatal friction on display in those cities demonstrates how crucial such community-building exercises have become.
"It's very important for us to show people that officers are more than just the uniform they wear," said San Jose police Chief Eddie Garcia, who gave a well-received speech at the church before the event. "We are doing a lot in the community to strengthen ties. Relations are always an issue, and you have to do the building before something happens."
John Bone, part of the congregation, said such a meeting was "long overdue."
"This kind of interaction between the community and the police can help alleviate a great deal of problems that exist between the two," he said. "This is a way for preconceptions and expectations to be changed."
Susie Harrison, who teaches Sunday school to seventh- and eighth-graders, said that, when she talked to her students before the event, she was surprised to find they hadn't yet formed an opinion of law enforcement.
Growing up in San Jose, she knew of many examples where that wasn't the case, of kids getting harassed when they hit the high school days that are just around the corner for her charges.
"But they haven't developed a sense that police are bad guys, that it's the cops vs. them," Harrison said. "They don't have an innate fear of officers yet, and it's important that they have a positive first experience now, before they get older and might have a negative first experience."
The inaugural coffee event took place in October, spearheaded by SJPD Sgt. Rebecca Marquez and Officer Stella Cruz. It involved about 20 sworn San Jose officers as well as community resource officers and a group of cops from nearby Milpitas.
Marquez said they hope to host more events all around the city, with the next one planned for South San Jose around September. She said she finds a lot of satisfaction in her role as icebreaker.
"Now people can say they did talk to a cop once, and that cop was a person, with a family, and kids, who faced racism herself," she said. "They can say, 'She gets it.' "
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.
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