It’s early on a summer morning and the patio at Sail Away Cafe in Afton is filled with people dining in the sunshine. As customers dive into plates of smoked salmon and cinnamon French toast, many pay little mind to the five Washington County sheriff’s deputies standing nearby.

One of the uniformed officers, deputy Mark Rindfleisch, tapes a poster to the window to let diners know why the officers are there before heading over to a table of customers to introduce himself.

“I have good vibes, good trust, that you people will take care of things,” said resident Dick Grant, who had come to the cafe to make a computer connection when he encountered Rindfleisch.

So went the recent Sheriff’s Office “Coffee with a Cop” get-together, the second event of its kind held this summer in cities that contract with Washington County for police protection. The first, in Hugo, attracted about a dozen residents.

“They’re just superb at handling difficult situations,” Afton Mayor Richard Bend said after talking with deputies who patrol his city. “You can sit down with them to chat and after a while, we know them well enough that it becomes less about law enforcement and more about chatting about mutual friends.”

Bend said it’s possible Afton City Hall will be expanded someday to include a substation for deputies working the area.

Rindfleisch, who also teaches Citizens Academy at the Sheriff’s Office, asked Sheriff Bill Hutton if he could start the coffee get-togethers to encourage more face-to-face contact with citizens. The event is modeled on a national initiative by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Ninety-five percent of the citizens in the community are law-abiding, let’s meet them,” said Rindfleisch as he patrolled south Washington County one recent afternoon. “If you meet just one person, if there’s one person you changed or helped, I think that’s important.”

Reversing a trend

Public confidence in police across the nation is the lowest in 22 years, according to a Gallup Poll commissioned in June. Still, police rank third in public confidence among 15 institutions tested in the poll — behind the military and small businesses — despite widespread publicity of police shootings that started with the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Sgt. Lonnie Van Klei, one of the Washington County deputies at the Sail Away Cafe, said bad news for police nationally has led to more conversations with local residents — and much of it is good.

“I’m approached daily,” he said. “People come up to thank me for doing my job. I’ve been in law enforcement for 30 years and I’ve never seen that trend before.”

Most officers do their jobs well, Van Klei said, and relate well to residents they serve.

Deputy Donovan Bump, who often patrols Afton, said people sometimes want to talk about what happened in Ferguson and that leads to broader discussions.

“There isn’t a day when I stop for a break that somebody doesn’t come up to me,” he said.

Deputy Katie Manis, a Cottage Grove native, is assigned to full-time patrol in the Afton area. She and deputy Amber Hoheisel stopped at Coffee with a Cop to make new acquaintances.

“I love being involved in the community and getting to know everybody,” Manis said.

Mixing with residents

Patrol Commander Brian Mueller said he wants positive community outreach to become one of his division’s strongest initiatives.

A comparable evening program, Safe Summer Night, was held recently in the manufactured home community of Cimarron, in Lake Elmo, and drew as many as 200 residents, Hutton said. Another evening gathering will be held Aug. 11 in Landfall.

“We encourage our deputies at every point to have interaction with the communities,” Hutton said.

One Afton resident who showed up to visit with deputies was Mark Nelson, a member of the city’s Planning Commission. He said he appreciated that deputies were reaching out. “If you don’t have a reason to meet cops, you don’t know them,” he said.

Another resident, Julie Stenberg-Zeidel, said it’s often difficult to know when deputies are on “official business” and whether they should be approached.

“I thought it was a good program to interact with them … to have a designated time that they’re open to hearing concerns,” she said. “We’re just people talking. It’s good to talk about things that aren’t all that monumental, when we’re not in the middle of a crisis.”