With pamphlets and police badge stickers placed atop the fold-up table — and with steaming coffee in hand — three Santa Barbara police officers waited for their first visitors outside the Milpas Street 7-Eleven on a recent weekday morning.
As for who would show up and when, Officer Kasi Beutel couldn’t say.
Per parameters of the “Coffee With a Cop” program, Beutel hadn’t prepared an agenda and merely hoped for casual conversation with some of the city’s Lower Eastside residents — notably more reluctant to approach police than neighbors on the Mesa or downtown.
SBPD has hosted the two-hour, informal outreach gatherings with residents since September 2012, rotating to different neighborhood coffee shops every month or so to promote businesses and to start a dialogue that doesn’t begin by calling 9-1-1.
The Eastside’s obvious disadvantage — besides boasting a high number of Latinos who speak only Spanish — is having no coffee shops.
“It’s always kind of hit or miss,” said Beutel, who is in charge of the program and has assembled at McDonald’s and other venues with little success.
At 8:30 a.m. outside the recently opened convenience store, a Big Gulp-wielding resident kicked off the morning by posing parking questions to Officers Adrian Gutierrez and John Reyes.
John Ahlman, a retired battalion chief with the Santa Barbara Fire Department, strolled up next.
“There’s no fire here,” Gutierrez joked.
“Well, you outnumber the customers at the moment,” Ahlman said, smiling as he eyed the group and then ducked inside for coffee.
Beutel said the officers don’t provide free coffee for residents, although other police departments involved in the nationwide program do. Locals have, however, offered her a cup on the house.
A junior-high student biked by Beutel, who asked why he wasn’t in school.
About the same time, a resident recognized Gutierrez as the Eastside’s Spanish-speaking beat coordinator and stopped to chat on his way inside.
Ahlman conversed with officers, and explained his concerns with safety and traffic as a nearby resident and president of the Eucalyptus Hill Improvement Association.
Officers said concerns vary depending on the neighborhood, such as Mesa residents’ fixation on bus routes.
Turnout differs just as widely, and can be affected by recent events, such as the boost in parent attendance after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.
Word of the latest coffee gathering must’ve gone out, as several Milpas Community Association members showed up to get the latest scoop on local crime.
“This is the first time we’ve been outside,” said Beutel, who straightened pamphlets that included a guide to the city’s prohibited skateboarding areas.
She said the freebies are displayed to lure folks to the table.
“People are still intimidated by officers,” Beutel said. “Usually that gives me a chance to talk to them.”
The 7-Eleven owner arrived, followed by more police officers, who sometimes stop by.
A resident complimented Beutel on settling a recent dispute at her property, and officers listened to occasional dispatch calls on their radios even though they typically don’t roll out during the morning meet-ups.
Resident Sue Burke said she was concerned with the number of homeless and appreciated a chance to “get a real idea of what’s going on.”
“This is a light turnout,” Officer Kent Wojciechoski said around 9:30 a.m. “We’re here to really help the public.”
Two youths walked up to Reyes to ask questions about becoming a police officer.
When the crowd died down with 30 minutes to go, Gutierrez was still talking to the same resident, Andres Dominguez, who came out because he heard about the program on the radio.
He explained how Gutierrez had checked a disturbance for him recently because the officer had been around the corner and off the clock, wearing flip-flops.
“It’s hard to find police you can trust,” Dominguez said approvingly.
At the two-hour mark, officers began to break down the outdoor table, and Gutierrez headed off to a nearby business to deal with individuals who were panhandling to customers.
The next coffee gathering will likely be at the Daily Grind on Upper De la Vina Street to see which new residents Beutel might draw into the discussion.
“Keep coming to my neighborhood,” Dominguez said, finally heading in to grab his cup of coffee.