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Bah! Humbug! A Cop's Christmas

The holidays are not always goodness and light for the Thin Blue Line.

December 01, 2002  |  by - Also by this author


Holidays can be a trying period for many, but particularly for the police officer. Sandwiched between familial obligations and departmental expectations, pulled from one preventable call to the next, you find your emotions stretched to the point where you'd like nothing better than to find some nice, dank chimney to climb into and hide.

Even then, you'd probably find the fireplace lit.

A lot of things get lit during the holidays. The Menorah. Christmas lights. The guy whose seasonal affective disorder gets the best of him. Alcohol is consumed, tempers soar. And you wind up involved in a whole new series of misadventures and then dealing with the aftermath. As a result, many a cop has played Officer Bert to some dude's Jimmy Stewart and concluded that it really isn't such a wonderful life after all.

Despite what some of our more vocal dissenters would have the public believe, cops are human. And while most of you might not be taking dives from the nearest tall building, that doesn't mean that you aren't affected by those who choose the winter holiday season to do so.

You are subject to the same bouts of depression as the rest of society, and when it comes to being exposed to depressing aggravations, perhaps more so. On duty, you have to handle a heavy seasonal workload and can have difficulty reconciling the "good will" supposedly endemic to the season with the wide range of human behavior you observe during the "most wonderful time of the year."

Emotional Extremes

Working the streets and highways of this nation, you quickly realize that horror and tragedy never take a holiday. Christmas and Hanukkah are just as much a time for death and destruction as peace and good will. It's a time when a cop sees the tragic aftermath of an unattended space heater and haphazard piles of discarded gift wrap paper, investigates a Christmas eve murder, or knocks on the door of someone's brightly decorated home to tell distraught parents that their daughter wrapped her Miata around a tree and he's sorry for their loss.

The winter holiday season is such a time of emotional extremes, with record numbers of assaults and fights at restaurants, on the sidewalks, the streets, and in the home that it's little wonder that some cops breathe a heavy sigh of relief each Jan. 2.

As Laurence Miller, a Florida police psychologist and author of the book, "Shocks to the System," observes, the Christmas season brings with it new degrees of enthusiasm. For the person who is generally good, this can bring out the best in them: They are apt to be found shopping for gifts for their loved ones, donating their time in soup kitchens, or assisting at other civic functions.

But society's problem children are no less susceptible to seasonal influences. Therefore, it is not surprising to see robbers and thieves doing what they do best with renewed vigor-letting Tiny Tim decide if he wants to get hit in the nose, or the wallet. Ironically, when these freelancers are asked why they're out capering, "Christmas gift needs" is the most oft quoted reason. As a result, December is the biggest month by far for robberies, holdups, and break-ins.

Often, it's the police who take in this trauma, and often with few emotional outlets of our own. And if you, like many, have elevated expectations during the holidays, your disappointments may be felt more profoundly than at other times of the year.

Ruining the Day

Some single cops try to make the best of the season by helping their fellow officers who are married with kids. When he was assigned to patrol, former Reno Police Department officer Tim Dees made a habit of working the holidays so that some of his peers would be able to spend the time with their families. This meant that cops like Dees ended up spending the season with other families, usually uninvited.

"I also made it a point to take at least one person to jail for DUI on Christmas," Dees says. "Invariably, they would try to get out of it by telling me, 'You're going to ruin my Christmas, you son of a bitch!' To which I would reply, 'I would rather ruin yours than have you ruin someone else's.'"

Thanks in part to the vigilance of officers like Dees, and a tendency for folks to imbibe, there's also an increase in drunk driving arrests and accidents recorded during the holidays. The combination of rampant "celebrations" with rain and inclement weather and heavier than usual highway traffic lead to potentially life-threatening situations-ones that only get worse when there's a frustrated need to get to holiday destinations on time.

The holiday season also brings the convergence of many religious and secular observances, further complicating an officer's already hectic life. Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish "festival of lights," begins; Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus; the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ends; and the relatively recent advent of Kwanzaa celebrates the unity of the African American community.

And more secular observations of the holidays can be no less taxing. Waltitia Hollman, an officer with the Baltimore Police Department, notes that certain seasonal aggravations can always be relied upon.

When asked what she can look forward to during the holidays, Hollman responds, "Last minute preparation. Never having enough radios or cars for the amount of people working New Year's Eve. All the lame, sick, useless, and housecats are off for the 'holiday,' but those that are full duty working their behinds off cannot have leave. Morale goes into the toilet due to the aforementioned. No resources are available during this time as the desk jockeys controlling the resources have gone on vacation. People normally assigned to HQ walking mandatory 'holiday' foot deployment who seem to have forgotten how to be police. Having to baby-sit the HQ foot deployment people because they never have supervisors with them."

SAD and Sadder

Stressors like the ones identified by Hollman can aggravate conditions that exist independent of the job. Seasonal Affective Disorder or "SAD" is one of them.

Variously referred to as the "blues," or "Christmas depression," SAD can start when the days become shorter and overcast then usually dissolves in the spring when days become longer and brighter. Symptoms include fatigue, general gloominess, difficulty sleeping, trouble getting up on dark mornings, loss of interest in job and/or family, a craving for excitement and pleasure, and increased consumption of alcohol or food, especially desserts and candies.

John Nicoletti, a Denver police psychologist, notes that much of the blame can be placed upon the biological cycle, or circadian clock, in the hypothalamus at the base of the brain. This cycle, associated with the Earth's rotation, regulates metabolic, glandular, and sleep rhythms in all people, and longer periods of darkness cause this natural clock to slip out of phase during the winter.

"Take an organic problem such as SAD and add in shift work, and your body can get confused, "Nicoletti says. "Drop in unconventional days off and rigid expectations of a spouse, and you can have a very bad mix for the holidays."

Nicolleti's suggestion? "Get together with your loved ones ahead of time. Develop realistic game plans for how the holidays can be observed. Marriage always involves compromises and trade-offs, and Christmas is certainly no exception. This can help minimize problems for the person suffering from seasonal affective disorder."

Some 10 million Americans become clinically or dangerously depressed when the days grow shorter. One of the best ways to beat the holiday blues is to fight with light. Photo therapy-sitting a patient in front of a large white box that reads bright light-seems to help some of the more severe cases.

The Winter Depression Program at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in Manhattan treated one woman who suffered from seasonal affective disorder every winter since childhood. The first thing researchers did was to get her off all drugs. Next, they put her in front of a light box containing six bright fluorescent tubes for three to four hours every morning and two hours before bedtime. Within three weeks, the patient was cured. Of course, success with the "fight with light" plan also requires a person to get adequate sleep. So, do like the bears do and allow yourself more hours of sleep during the winter months.

Happy Work Day

If you do end up working the holidays, realize that you're not alone. Cops the world over will be dealing with a variety of problem children, and when that gets you down, remember that some of them can be downright entertaining.

Looking for people who had been successfully dodging outstanding warrants for their arrest, police officers in Yorkshire, England recently conducted a Christmas "sting" operation.

The Yorkshire police dressed up as mailmen, then contacted their targets and told each one that he or she was the recipient of a Christmas package that was waiting to be picked up at the post office. When the eager fugitives arrived, they were picked up instead.

All except for one crook, who was slightly brighter than the rest. He thought it might be a scam.

He took his notice to the police station.

Tips for a Healthy, Happy Holiday Season

The three magi of the Christian Gospels came bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the Christ child. Today, the most valuable gift any wiseman could give to you might be peace of mind and a healthy winter.

Accept the realization that no one's Christmas is ever perfect, even in the "ideal" family.

Don't let the hectic pace of the holidays stress you out. Plan ahead-particularly if you suspect your scheduling guy won't. Be prepared for last minute setbacks by taking care of them early.

Shop early. Find out what friends and loved ones want, or need, well before the shopping season. If you trust the medium, shopping on-line might help prevent some of the aggravations that go with mall shopping-congestion, frustrating traffic, occupied parking spots, and packed rest rooms.

A recent Forbes magazine report on the wealthiest fictional characters estimated that Santa had a bankroll of infinite dollars. You don't. So avoid overspending.

Maintain your health: Get plenty of rest during the holidays, especially if you are susceptible to the blues.

Stress and fatigue accompanying the season can trigger asthma attacks, so take it easy.

Remember that late work hours, lack of sleep, too many holiday parties, lack of physical activity, overeating and drinking, or not dressing properly for the weather can lower your resistance to cold and flu.

Wash your hands before every meal. Wash them often all day long.
If possible, get a flu shot.

For allergy sufferers, live Christmas trees and real fireplace logs can be a problem as their bark often contains mold. An artificial tree may not seem the same to the purists, but if it will help you stay well this winter, embrace the artificial.

Also, Christmas tree decorations and ornaments can be dusty from storage. So when you take them out either wear a mask or cover your nose and mouth.

Control your weight but don't do without. When you sit down to eat big family meals, whether at home, in a restaurant, or at a friend's house, fill up on turkey and vegetables. Take smaller portions of dressing, potatoes, gravy, and yams in brown sugar. A "taste" instead of a full-fledged "helping" can be satisfying.

Even if you are not a seasonal affective disorder sufferer, when you get up in the morning and it's still dark outside, brighten up the whole house. Turn on all the lights in your bedroom and bathroom areas, and do the same in your kitchen and breakfast areas. An hour of bright lights in the early morning will help snap your biological clock back into phase and brighten your whole day.

Also, don't forget to add brightness at your office. During the brightest part of the day, walk outside and enjoy the sunlight. If possible, get out of the building at noon and take a short walk. You'll feel renewed.

Finally, should your sergeant dump some project on you at exactly the wrong moment, try not to remind him or her how the angel got on top of the Christmas tree.

Sgt. Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and a frequent contributor to Police.

Tags: Patrol Morale, Handling Stress, Officer Mental Health, Reno PD, Baltimore PD


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