(CNN)Imagine being stopped by a police officer -- not for a speeding ticket or a noise complaint, but for a friendly cup of coffee at your local coffee shop.
What would you tell a cop over coffee?
It's not an encounter with law enforcement that most people expect, and that's exactly the point, Sgt. Chris Cognac of the Hawthorne Police Department in California says.
In 2011, Hawthorne police decided to restructure their department and become more community-oriented. As a result, Cognac was moved to Community Affairs. During hiring interviews to staff the new unit, candidate John Dixon suggested the agency sit down for coffee with people in the community to get to know them better.
"That's a pretty good idea," Cognac remembers saying. "Let's go to where the people are, instead of having the people come to us."
Later that year, the Hawthorne Police Department hosted its first-ever "Coffee with a Cop" event at a local McDonald's.
Now, "Coffee with a Cop" events are held every six weeks by more than 1,000 police departments worldwide. While the departments generally share upcoming events over social media, their real strategy is to meet people who didn't necessarily intend to have coffee with a cop that day. So if you're grabbing coffee in your local coffee shop while an event happens to be going on, you could be approached by an officer to have a complimentary cup while talking about anything you choose.
This way, Cognac says, the events are reflective of the community in which they're held. No questions are off limits.
"We've been really good at being proactive -- at doing town hall meetings, pancake breakfasts and going to church and council meetings," Capt. Keith Kauffman of the Hawthorne Police Department says.
Kauffman has been running the program alongside Cognac for years now. "But who really attends those? I think we know who they are already. They are our community stakeholders that we love and need, but we know their names."
The goal of "Coffee with a Cop" is for police officers to communicate with a larger majority of the community members that they serve.
"It has transcended ethnic boundaries, and it works all across the board because it's simple," Cognac says.
The program has given people a chance to see him as more than just a big police officer responding to emergencies, he explains. They can see there's a real human behind the badge. "We're football coaches. Our kids play soccer with your kids. We're part of your community."
These days, Kauffman and Cognac juggle their regular policing responsibilities with traveling around the United States to educate and train police departments about the "Coffee with a Cop" program.
"We couldn't stop this program if we wanted to," says Cognac. "Now even the communities are crying out for this. They see a need for it, too."