PORTSMOUTH — After the issue came up in Warren recently, several local police chiefs say they discourage the practice of officers accepting free coffee from local businesses.
Portsmouth Police Chief Thomas F. Lee said while the department has no official policy on free cups of coffee, appearances matter.
He’s OK with officers accepting a free coffee from a business “as long as it’s not a quid pro quo situation where they’re expecting anything back,” he said.
Chief Lee added, “I would discourage the practice and tell them if they don’t charge us, throw a tip in there.” Otherwise, he said, members of the public might imply that the police officer are playing favorites.
It all began when a woman visiting relatives in Barrington stopped at the Cumberland Farms store near the East Bay Bike Path in Warren on July 17. While waiting in line she saw a uniformed Warren police officer pour a cup of coffee and leave the store without paying for it.
“When I asked the manager about this, he said that Cumberland Farms stores has a long-standing store policy of giving free coffee to all police officers in uniform as well as corrections officers,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Warren Times-Gazette. “I was surprised by this. I know in New York City police are not permitted to do this, and that most police departments don’t allow this because they say it’s a slippery slope from accepting free coffee to payments. Every article I’ve read on this says it’s wrong.”
Warren Police Department spokesman Lt. Roland Brule said that if the officer did accept coffee, he broke department policy. He said the department has a written policy that forbids officers from accepting gratuities of any kind, including coffee.
Tiverton Police Capt. Patrick Jones echoed the same policy. Tiverton’s rules state, “No employee shall solicit or accept gifts, food, admissions to entertainment or sporting events, cash, loans or fees, or anything of value that is not available to the general public, and which is or could be interpreted to have been offered because of their status as a police department employee.”
Rules require that any offers that are made need to be reported to the police chief, he said. There is also a prohibition against gifts by officers junior in rank to those senior in rank.
‘Officers have to pay’
“People send us gift cards. We send them back. Donations — we send them back,” said Capt. Jones. “It’s very clear in our rules and regulations. Officers have to pay.”
He said while officers appreciate the gesture from businesses, they can’t accept gratuities. “People’s taxes pay our salaries,” he said.
There’s was an ethical revolution that went on some years back, he said. Police salaries and benefits improved, and the notion that there should be no quid pro quo in policing took hold.
Chief Lee agreed. “I’ve heard years ago that stuff like that might have happened, but not in recent days,” he said.
Police cannot accept discounts either, he said.
“Something came up recently where one of the companies wanted to do something where they gave a discount (to public safety officers) and we referred it over to Town Hall because we didn’t think it was proper,” said Chief Lee, noting that it was a nationally known company and not a local mom and pop store.
Poll: Free cup OK
Although police chiefs may discourage the officers from getting a free cup of joe, the majority of readers in an online East Bay Newspapers poll say it’s no big deal.
As of Thursday, about 62 percent of participants said they thought it was OK for officers to accept the gesture of gratitude.
About 35 percent of readers said they were against the police accepting freebies of any kind.
As of last Thursday afternoon, 584 people had participated in the poll.