December 23, 2023

A few stories about working on Christmas


PERF members,

As I did at Thanksgiving and last Christmas, I asked some police chiefs and others for a few stories about working on Christmas. Along with a few other professions like medicine and aviation, policing is one of the only occupations that can never take a day off. Working on Christmas, cops can see the worst of people, but they also can see people at their best. I hope the stories below capture some of the rewarding aspects of working on Christmas.


Boulder, CO Chief Maris Herold

I was fresh out of the Cincinnati police academy and working third shift on Christmas Eve with Eddie, my field training officer. The call volume diminished as bars closed early and aggravated families exhausted themselves. Eddie and I were bored and complaining about working Christmas morning while patrolling deserted downtown streets.

Suddenly we both noticed smoke billowing out of a nearby senior community apartment complex. Racing to the front of the building, we found it engulfed in flames. I parked our patrol vehicle, and we both ran down hallways banging our nightsticks against the heavy metal doors to alert residents. More officers arrived and joined the effort.

We thought everyone had been evacuated, but a frantic resident told us that a disabled man, unable to walk, was unaccounted for. He lived on the top floor in an attic-like apartment that we missed during our sweep. I ran up three flights of stairs, found his door, and threw my shoulder against it repeatedly and without success until two larger officers joined me to break the door down. One was a senior SWAT officer who army-crawled under the smoke and across the apartment to retrieve the man, carried him on his back down the stairs, and placed him safely into a waiting ambulance.

As I recovered from exhaustion and smoke inhalation, a fellow officer said he overheard firefighters cursing about a vehicle blocking the hydrant. I turned to find our patrol cruiser’s windows shattered and a dripping fire hose strung through the back of the vehicle.

In the end, 15 lives were saved, we received a prestigious state award for heroism, and the fire chief personally threatened me with a ticket for my parking transgression. On that day, Eddie and I learned the importance of sacrificing vacation and personal family time to patrol quiet Christmas mornings, and I learned a valuable and unforgettable lesson about parking choices during critical incidents.


Knoxville, TN Chief Paul Noel

One year when I was in New Orleans, my detective unit was investigating a domestic violence incident late in the evening on Christmas Eve. I was about to head home for the night, and I stopped by the scene on my way home. I ended up talking to a kid who was probably not going to have much of a Christmas even before his house became a crime scene. The kid was having a tough time, and somehow the movie “Fred Claus” (a film about Santa and his brother Fred) came up during our conversation.

I was in uniform, so one of my detectives pointed to my name tag with “Noel” on it and started telling an elaborate story about how “Papa Noel” was the real name for Santa and I was Papa Noel’s son. The kid was convinced that Santa was my dad. We were about to make a Christmas Eve trip to Wal-Mart to get him some presents when one of the detectives remembered we had extra presents at the station from our Christmas toy drive. That was the year Papa Noel’s son and his detective elves helped Santa make an early delivery.


Palm Beach County, FL Colonel John Prieschl

Sgt. George Searing is assigned to our Homeland Security Bureau, where his primary responsibility is handling threat assessments for our local businesses.

This year has been extraordinarily challenging for George. He lost his significant other of 19 years to cancer in January, and is grieving and struggling with not having her with him this Christmas and holiday season.

George has always been very active in our community outreach programs, especially those that serve children. He is taking vacation time to personally drop off a truck full of gifts at one of our district distribution points so that many children in the underserved communities in the western part of our county can have a present under their tree at Christmas this year. It’s helping to lift George’s spirits a bit, and his goal is to bring smiles to the children of our community one home at a time.


Former Aurora, IL Chief Kristen Ziman

The men and women of the Aurora Police Department begin planning for the annual toy drive months before Christmas. It’s a cherished tradition that brings immense joy to both the children and the department. One year I joined the officers in dressing in festive attire, loading the Bearcat with brightly-wrapped presents, and delivering them to the children in the community. As we navigated through the neighborhoods, there was palpable anticipation and excitement among the officers. And the children’s faces lit up with a mixture of surprise and joy upon our arrival. That Christmas I saw not only the joy the officers brought the children, but also the strengthening of the bond between the police department and the community.


Gil Kerlikowske, former Buffalo police commissioner, Seattle police chief, Office of National Drug Control Policy director, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner

On Christmas Day of 1995 in Buffalo, my wife Anna and I were walking on a snow-covered sidewalk after dinner when I saw a young man push an older woman to the ground and steal her purse. I took off in pursuit, while Anna went into a restaurant to call BPD. Although the young man was faster, the snow slowed him down. I was able to jump on a passing snow plow, and when we pulled up next to the purse snatcher, I jumped off and arrested him. Luckily the woman was not hurt and had no money in the purse. And the young man came from a really tough home. So on Christmas Day, we helped the victim and later got the young man help through juvenile court.


Chattanooga, TN Chief Celeste Murphy

When I was a precinct commander, we kept getting 9-1-1 calls from an elderly man in an adult living facility reporting that someone was putting poisonous gas through his vents. Officers were familiar with the man, and the calls were becoming a nuisance for 9-1-1.

One day there was a 9-1-1 call from the property manager, reporting the resident was causing a disturbance and threatening staff in the leasing office. I went with the responding officer and found the man back in his apartment. We convinced him to talk to us, and, despite his clearly declining mental health, we had a conversation about the cherished memories from his life. When we left, I gave him my cell number so he could call me, instead of 9-1-1, if he felt threatened by anyone in his home.

It stopped the abusive use of 9-1-1, but it opened the floodgates of calls to my cell phone. I was able to talk him out of acute crisis on several occasions, and often stopped by with a beat officer to check on him and reassure him that no one was trying to poison him with gas. Sometimes he called just to say hello or tell me more stories about his family.

Weeks later, I invited him to come to the precinct on Christmas Day to join us for the meal I provided my officers who couldn’t be home with their families. He dressed sharpy for the occasion, was excited to come to the precinct, and was able to engage in perfectly clear conversation. He talked to everyone, danced a little, and ate well. The officers saw a different side of him, and they continued to check on him after I left that precinct for another assignment.

To this day, I keep pictures of that Christmas Day on my phone to remind me that some things may take a little more time, effort, and patience, but they’re oftentimes worth it.


Atlanta Chief Darin Shierbaum

The one Christmas call I still remember was in the early days of my career, on Christmas Day of 2000. Being one of the few single deputies, I was assigned to the day shift so others could have time off with their children. Johnson County, where I worked, is a very rural county, and the chances of being sent on a call were slim. But at noon I was dispatched to a car accident on I-24, where a family traveling to Tennessee had struck a deer, disabling their car. They were stranded in a county where no rental car services existed, much less one open on Christmas. I still remember their profound appreciation as I drove them to an open rental car agency in a neighboring county so they could return to their holiday journey. They were full of thanks for law enforcement that day, because we never take a holiday and always stand ready to assist. Those opportunities for service continue to build the bonds of trust between the community and our noble profession.


Yakima, WA Chief Matthew Murray

I was in training in the Denver Police Department’s auto-theft unit, and as the lowest-ranked person in the unit, I was working alone on Christmas. Dispatch mistakenly sent me a call about a young woman having trouble with a man in her home. As I had nothing to do, I popped over to see if I could help instead of sending her back to dispatch.

The complainant was just out of high school, far from home, and renting a house while going to college. The man had been a guest but was refusing to leave. She was scared of him and didn’t know what to do. I explained to him that he had to leave or would be spending Christmas in a jail cell. He left, she thanked me, and I went back to the empty auto-theft unit. The whole call took less than 20 minutes and was routine.

I got another call a few hours later from the young lady’s father in Ohio. He was emotional and got choked up when he told me how thankful he was for the Denver Police Department and knowing his daughter was safe on Christmas. He said it was the greatest gift he could possibly receive. The young lady later sent me a $5 gift card for coffee with a note of thanks, which I still have in my scrap book.


Police Scotland Sergeant Clair Fletcher

As a constable two Christmas Day incidents come to mind, both involving elderly people living alone.

Firstly was the year when the rain was torrential and an elderly lady had her front garden flooded. I saw what was happening, drove to the council area where the sandbags were stored, grabbed as many as I could, and took them to her garden wall where I built the best barricade I could. It stemmed the flow so it didn’t get any worse.

Another was when two of us were called to a house on an unrelated matter and the house was freezing cold. It turned out their heating was off and they were too afraid to call for help at Christmas because of the cost. The cop I was working with made a few phone calls to mates to see if anyone could help. Meanwhile I looked at the boiler manual trying to figure out how the blooming thing worked. Long story short, the pilot light had gone out. We were able to get it relit and the heating came back on.


William Evans, Boston College police chief and former Boston police commissioner

The best memories of Christmas Eve and Day are giving out toys to inner city kids in Dorchester in uniform as police commissioner. Many of these young children were not going to experience the joys of Christmas and Santa Claus, but we made it happen. Seeing the smiles of the parents and other family members made Christmas for me and the BPD officers. We see too many tragedies in our profession, but helping families in need makes it all worth it.


Rick Myers, former police chief in Appleton, WI, Newport News, VA, Colorado Springs, and several other agencies

About midway through my career as a chief, my wife and I were discussing the days when I worked the road on Christmas Eve and had to pack a meal because every restaurant was closed. This conversation began a tradition of providing a Christmas Eve meal to on-duty officers in my agency, unless we were out of town visiting family. We did it about 7 of the 12 years I was in Appleton, but we had to switch to meal deliveries in Colorado Springs because the city was too sprawling, with too many on-duty officers to handle ourselves. In Newport News, we returned to providing meals ourselves.

My daughters, now adults, speak fondly of spending Christmas Eve with “my cops,” and I still have officers inquire how my daughters are doing. It was our privilege to serve those who were serving on a shift when they’d rather be with their families.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday, whether you’re working, at home, or traveling! I’ll be taking next week off, and this column will return in the new year. Thank you for all you do to make a difference!