The Cop’s Holiday Spirit

The Cop’s Holiday Spirit

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

There are a lot of great things about being in law enforcement. There’s a sense of purpose, experiences of saving lives, bringing peace to chaos, the internal assurance that the world is an incrementally better place with you in it. Granted, there are days and seasons when it takes deliberate and disciplined thought to affirm those reasons to keep on keeping on.

There are those quiet moments on midnight shift when there’s no paperwork locking you in your cubicle and you bounce through the alley looking for burglaries in the glow of the in-car computer terminal. The waves from the early morning delivery drivers tossing newspapers or delivering groceries. The first whiff of the first donuts from your favorite coffee shop. The dawn that creases your eyelids and promises the end of your shift.

There is the camaraderie of fellow officers regardless of the badge or patch that they wear. There are the insider jokes, the eye-rolling about the administration, the funniest drunk tale, and the latest pursuit story. The careful humor over the radio where you know you’re being recorded but only an insider will know what you’re really saying. All these things make it hard for most cops to hang up the uniform and become a normal civilian when the time comes, whether that’s retirement or a job offer that pays better, won’t get you killed, and gets you weekends and holidays off.

But holidays can be rough on the men and women in blue. Although most types of crime increase in the warmer months there are a disproportionate number of memories from those holiday shifts around Thanksgiving and Christmas. While the decorations glisten and the ads are all warm and fuzzy, the tragedies that happen during the holiday season are deeper and darker than they would be any other time. The drunken dads seem more pitiful. Fatal crashes will forever mark the holiday season for family members. Suicide rates are greater in the spring and summer months, but when it happens during the holiday season it’s hard to have those happy holiday moments.

Cops see the poverty-stricken often, but slim holidays are particularly sad. Families that are doing the very best they can do but fall short with one bad turn of luck. Many officers and agencies are involved in meal and toy collection and delivery. The fun of watching a child during a shop with a cop event is tempered with knowing their struggle the other 364 days of the year.

Domestic disturbance calls are always a high-risk event, but a holiday DV call can be even more intense. Maybe the family is getting together for the first time in a long time and long-simmering tensions are not forgotten. Alcohol melts away the filters of common sense and loosens the tongue to say what should remain unspoken. Visits from the in-laws and outlaws last longer than the host can tolerate. Family homicides are close up and personal, wounds showing high emotion.

Travelers that crash and get stranded, households displaced by a Christmas tree-sparked fire, and EMS calls for family members who were struggling to stay alive for the holidays but didn’t make it long enough to wave goodbye to people who knew it might be their last visit can punctuate the cop’s holiday. Some officers are able to stop by their homes for a dinner break with family. Some join community dinners for those with no other place to be. Some simply spend another special day on patrol or on-call with no hope of having a holiday of their own or hugging loved ones today.

There are those holiday shifts where no one crashes in your zone, where no drunk driver ventures out. Sometimes the radio interrupts the shift only to check the time and your location. Sometimes the decorated streets, businesses, and houses are still and beautiful and offer hope for peace. Those are shifts when the officer exhales a thankful sigh as they pull off their ballistics vest and drop their equipment belt at the door of their own home at the end of their day.

But even a quiet holiday shift will not erase the memories of the ones that were not so quiet. The ones punctuated by flashing red and blue lights from police, fire, and EMS vehicles invading the Christmas lights. The ones where neighbors peek out of their frosty windows out of curiosity and concern or step into the street in their robes and nightgowns. There is no forgetting holding a child shivering from cold or fear or pain. There is no joy in booking some knucklehead who couldn’t manage to give a day off to their selfish criminality. The holidays bring light to most of us. But they bring dark shadows to the world of first responders.