Cops of Coffee

In 1960, the state of Texas began construction of a reservoir in the northeastern part of the state. Two years later, Lake Palestine opened. There’s nothing particularly notable about the lake — it’s 18 miles long and, at its longest, four miles wide; it’s stocked with catfish and bass; and, there’s not much else to say. It’s just a lake.

Shortly after the lake’s construction, the state and its counties started building towns around the waterfront.  The town of Coffee City, Texas, is one of those towns. Its name, though, is very misleading. First, it’s not much of a city — only about 250 people live there. And second, there’s no coffee grown in Coffee City nor has there ever been, as far I can tell. In fact, coffee isn’t the beverage it’s best known for — far from it. Coffee City sits in Henderson County, Texas, and is near the edge of Smith County (here’s a map). Back in the 1960s, Smith was a dry county — you couldn’t buy liquor there — but booze was perfectly legal in Henderson. In the 1980s, a handful of liquor stores opened in Coffee City as a result. But when Smith removed its ban on wine and beer sales, that industry dried up.

But don’t worry — another vocation took its place: law enforcement.

A town of 250 people, like any other town, probably needs some sort of police force — bad things happen and you want helpers when they do. You probably want at least two or three officers, and maybe as many as ten? That’d be 4% of the population, which seems on the high end of reasonable. Coffee City, as of the summer of 2023, didn’t have two, three, or ten police officers.

They had fifty.

There’s no reason, of course, for a town of 250 people to have one officer per every four other residents. Coffee County’s Police Department asserted that most of the officers — 38 of the 50 — were reservists and not full-time employees of the PD, and helped the small town ” more than $1 million in court fees from tickets” by working “in a division in Houston, 200 miles to the south, tracking down big-city residents with outstanding traffic fines or for a failure to appear in Coffee City court.” according to Rolling Stone. When not tracking down such citations, these officers — as permitted under Texas law — were allowed to moonlight as security guards or in other law enforcement-adjacent roles.

But the cop overpopulation wasn’t just an effort to make some extra money for the town — at the expense of its residents and visitors, and contrary to Texas’s policing guidelines (as noted below). Apparently, the police department and its chief were also running an officer rehab program of sorts. In August of 2023, the Houston CBS affiliate, KHOU, broke the news of the very large Coffee City Police Department. And, the news station discovered, “Coffee City is a magnet for troubled cops. More than half of the department’s 50 officers had been suspended, demoted, terminated or dishonorably discharged from their previous law enforcement jobs, according to personnel files obtained through open records requests to other law enforcement agencies.”

The chief of police, unsurprisingly, was fired a few weeks after the news hit. But the Coffee City government didn’t stop there. Around the same time, the town decided to “deactivate” its entire 50-person police force, figuring it was easier to build from the ground up than pick and choose a handful of the fifty to retain. But that may be easier said than done. As Jeff Blackstone, the mayor of Coffee City, told local ABC affiliate KLTV, “We need to form a police department that follows the state guidelines which mandate that you don’t fund your police department with traffic citations. So, that being said, I need the people in our community to understand how limited our funds are now.” As of last week, the town still has no police department and is looking into starting a neighborhood crime watch.

Bonus fact: Coffee City is a silly name for a town of 250 people (especially, again, given that they don’t do anything with coffee other than drink it), but it’s not the silliest name in Texas. That honor probably goes to Ding Dong, Texas, an unincorporated area in the central-ish part of the state. (Here’s a map.) Ding Dong, which calls itself home to 22 or so people, NPR affiliate KERA explains: “It was founded in the 1930s by settlers Bert and Zulis Bell. One day, a hired hand was painting a sign for the Bells’ country store, and he painted two bells on the sign and labeled them Bert and Zulis. A neighbor had the humorous notion to tell the painter to include the words ‘Ding Dong’ on the sign, and whaddaya know, the name stuck.”

From the Archives: Why You Shouldn’t Fart on a West Virginia Police Officer: It’s illegal.