It was two weeks before Christmas. Dirt-blackened snow lined the icy roads while a dark, ominous sky and frigid temperatures kept most people indoors. But to a group of cops from the third precinct in Nassau County, New York, none of that mattered. They met at the station house, gathered their costumes, broke off into groups, and headed to the local health clinic.
Once there, some changed into bears, some into clowns, some stayed in their uniforms, and one transformed into Santa Claus.
As the officers walked into the main room, the cold chill brought in from the outside suddenly disappeared amid the happy shouts of more than 200 children. While the uniformed officers played with the kids, Santa Claus patiently gave each child a gift. For many, it would be the only one they would receive that season.
The officers were there on their own time. But to them this event was more than worthy of their attention. In one afternoon they helped 200 children see that the police aren't the bad guys after all. They hoped the kids learned that there are kind and generous people in their world, and some of them are in blue uniforms.
Scenes like this are repeated all over the country as each year police officers from dozens of departments reach beyond their law enforcement duties to give something back to the communities they serve.
In Ocean County, New Jersey, the Sheriff's department gathers more than 1,000 toys for the holiday season each year. According to Sheriff William Polhemus, the agency begins its drive in September.
"We start collecting toys for children under 12 from underprivileged families. We also have a food drive at the same time so we can donate to families that need the help," he says.
With the aid of its 106 officers, 911 operators and dispatchers, and all of its civilian employees, the department helps families that Polhemus says would not otherwise be able to celebrate fall and winter holidays with food and gifts.
Ocean County officers put toys in large plastic bags at police headquarters where parents or guardians can pick them up.
Across the country in Torrance, Calif., the city's police and fire departments were a little more innovative in the way they distributed their toys last year.
They arrived at the local hospital in police cars and a fire truck. On the seventh floor were children who were quarantined, but that did not stop officers and firefighters from making their deliveries. Santa Claus climbed the fire department's ladder up the seven stories and waved to the children to let them know he would be inside soon.
And he kept his promise. The officers and firemen were able to give each child a gift. Those who could not come to them, the officers went to, even if they had to wear masks.
The hospital was not the only stop for the busy department. More than 300 children got deliveries last year from the Torrance PD.
The department's toy drive begins the week after Thanksgiving. Donation boxes are put out in the main police station, satellite stations, and firehouses where community members can easily deposit toys.
According to Torrance PD's Officer Christine Kiesling, the officers then have their work cut out for them.
"We get a lot of referrals from the schools. They will know which are low income or might be going through hard times. We trust their judgment that it is a family in need," she says.
While some parents of needy children pick up donated gifts from the police station, officers often deliver the gifts themselves, making sure each gift is appropriate for the gender and age of each child.
"The officers drive up in their black and whites and deliver the presents in large garbage bags so the kids can't see," says Kiesling. "That way, if the parents want to play Santa or surprise the children for whatever holiday they celebrate, they have the opportunity to do it themselves."
Torrance PD doesn't limit its charitable efforts to the holiday season. The department is heavily involved in supporting the Special Olympics, as are many law enforcement agencies.
A Special Cause
In the first nine months of this year, the Torrance Police Department raised $14,000 for the Special Olympics games, which encourage mentally and physically challenged children to compete in sports. All the money the agency raises each year goes directly to the participants. Last year, thanks to local donations, the Southern California regional program was able to increase the number of those participating from 300 to 350, in addition to adding two more sporting events to the competition.
The funds from these events also sent six participants to Ireland to compete in the 2004 world Special Olympics Championships. The funds raised this year will send two of the athletes to participate in the speed skating world games in Japan.
Torrance PD's money-raising efforts for Special Olympics include events like "Tip a Cop," where officers serve food in local restaurants and donate their tips, a motorcycle ride fundraiser and T-shirt sales whose proceeds help sponsor the Special Olympics law enforcement torch run.
Many other departments throughout the country also contribute to the Special Olympics and to the law enforcement torch run, which is the largest grass roots fundraiser and public awareness effort for Special Olympics. More than 85,000 law enforcement officers from around the world raised more than $20 million for the games in 2003. The "Flame of Hope" was carried across 35 nations in order to raise money and public awareness of the organization.
Special Olympics is also an important charity for the Boulder (Colo.) Police Department, as is its popular fundraiser for the cause, Tip a Cop.
According to Boulder PD Sgt. Dave Seper, Tip a Cop has been a very successful means of raising funds. Officers from the department spend an evening collecting "tips" for the cause as they serve restaurant diners water and coffee, but not food or alcohol.
"They won't let us touch the food. It's bad enough we spill the water and coffee," he says. Based on the department's last event, the Boulder PD "waiters" must not be spilling too many of the drinks, however. In a four-hour period they raised $1,050.
Boulder PD officers also work with local gas stations to raise money for Special Olympics and participate in the torch run.
"As a bonus, it's a great way to interact with the local businesses," Seper says.
The Hasbrouck Heights (N.J.) Police Department has also been involved with the Special Olympics, raising enough money to place as the third-highest fundraisers in the state of New Jersey, despite being a small department in a town of only two square miles. The agency got its start in fundraising with a smaller goal in mind.