December 24, 2022

Peacekeeping on Christmas

PERF members,

Over the years, I’ve heard stories about what it’s like for cops to work on Christmas. Mostly it’s a quiet day with few calls, but sometimes things happen. When people get together, you see the best of people, but sometimes you see the worst. And when there is trouble, of course, the public calls the cops. Often the police have to employ what sociologist Egon Bittner referred to as the “craft” of peacekeeping because, on this day of peace, society still needs peacekeepers.

So, on the day before Christmas, I wanted to share a few stories from experienced police leaders about memorable Christmas Days on the job.


Volusia County, Florida Sheriff Mike Chitwood

I was a detective (in Philadelphia), and on Christmas Eve a gentleman was picking up Christmas gifts for his kids at his mother-in-law’s house and loading them into his car. After he put all the gifts in, he left the car running, and when he went back into the house somebody jumped in the car and drove away.

I was assigned the stolen car case, and when we interviewed the guy he was crying. “I can’t believe everything is gone! We’ve been shopping for six months and stored everything at my mother-in-law’s house so that the kids wouldn’t see it. I don’t have the money to get the stuff back.”

A little later in the day we recovered the car, but the Christmas gifts were cleaned out.

A couple other detectives, a sergeant, and I took the guy to Toys “R” Us to replenish the toys. That was our gift to this poor guy whose gifts had been stolen.


Retired Fayetteville, North Carolina Chief Harold Medlock

Back in the early ‘90s, I was working the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift on Christmas Eve. My wife and both our families were going to the Christmas Eve church services. As I was patrolling, I was watching everyone go to the services and feeling real loneliness, even though I knew I would be with my family on Christmas Day.

We got a call for a major domestic disturbance with injuries that night. We responded, got out of the car, and the children who lived in the home were in the front yard crying. It was chaos. The father went to jail that night for seriously assaulting the mother. The mother went to the hospital. My partners and I found ourselves essentially babysitting these kids on Christmas Eve until we could find a relative to leave them with.

I started the shift patrolling around the peaceful setting of Christmas Eve services having selfish thoughts about having to work while my family was celebrating Christmas Eve; but when I responded to that call, I realized that it was about these kids, not about me. I realized the responsibility I had and the reason I was working that night with the other officers who responded. We were there to take care of those kids.

That was almost 30 years ago, so those kids are now grown. This time of year I always think back to that night and wonder where they are now.


Clearwater, Florida Chief Dan Slaughter

In the early years of my career, I was assigned to serve as a community police officer in a transitional housing project. The children in this community regularly visited our substation office.  They stopped in to say hi, watch videos, and just be kids.  While working Christmas Day, my partner and I asked one of the kids what they got for Christmas. We learned that, due to some financial problems, the family returned the gifts they had so they could pay bills.  We could tell that the kid was sad, although they did not complain and just seemed to accept the situation.  

My partner and I contacted a local non-profit partner and surprised the child later that day with a new bike and some other toys. The kid continued to visit the substation regularly during my time serving in that community.

At that moment in my career, I realized that our role is more than community policing; it is truly community service. Retired Clearwater Police Chief Willis Booth once told me that you build trust one encounter at a time. I believe that to be true, and that Christmas Day encounter made me grateful that I was in a place to do something kind and made me appreciate my job.


Retired U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer

I was working as an Area Four homicide detective (in Chicago) on Christmas Day. There weren’t a lot of us working, so I was by myself. There was a case I was interested in with a guy we wanted on a murder warrant. We’d been looking for this guy for a period of time. That’s not something homicide detectives would normally do. Normally, once you get the warrant, you move on to your next case. At least, that’s how it worked back in the ‘70s. But we would keep our eye out for people, and we had some inclination that the guy may be back in the area.

He was a young guy – under 21 – so I thought maybe he would return to his mother’s house on Christmas. I decided to go over to the mother’s house over on the south side of the city and sit up the block watching. About two or three that afternoon, I saw someone probably in the same age category as our offender bounding down the steps. I pulled up in my unmarked car by myself, which is what we did in the ‘70s but obviously wouldn’t do today. I identified him, brought him in, and he was the murderer.


Retired Denver Chief R.C. White

Early in my career (in Washington D.C.), I think right after I made sergeant, I got a call about a child who had his bike stolen. The right thing to do was to purchase a bike and give it to him. Christmas is a joyous day, especially for young people, so I didn’t want that boy to go without his bike.

I did something similar when I was the chief in Denver. Around Christmastime it was brought to my attention that a young person had his bike stolen. So I purchased a new one for him.


Retired San Diego and San Jose Chief Bill Lansdowne

I was a captain in San Jose and working on Christmas Day. I was out on the street and heard a call about a prowler. I was close by, so I went to the call.

When I got there, I found a senior citizen in her mid-70s and I asked if I could help her. She said, “I thought I heard a prowler outside and I wanted to talk to somebody.” I said, “Here I am. We’ll go check.” There was nothing in the backyard. She said, “There was no prowler, but I knew that I couldn’t call anybody to come out to the house to talk to me. I’m lonely. My husband passed away. My kids are out of state. I have nobody to talk to on Christmas.”

I said, “That’s what we’re here for – to help you.”

She got out some photo albums and I went through all the pictures of the kids and family and all the places they’d been, and then she was excited again. She thanked me very much and said, “There’s nobody who will come out to help you when you’re depressed on Christmas other than a police officer. And you did help me.” I said, “You’re a wonderful lady, and I’m glad you talked to me because I feel better too.”

I know many of you probably have similar stories. Whether you’re working or have the day off, I hope you all have a wonderful holiday and can enjoy some time with family and friends this week.

Wishing peace to the peacekeepers.