Getting Through the Holidays

Amidst the craziness of midnight callouts for family gatherings gone wrong, take a minute this holiday season to reflect on what you have and the good that you do.

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For all the great things about working in law enforcement, there are also lots of not so great things. This is especially evident during the holidays.

New officers and their families learn very quickly that law enforcement is very different from other professions. They learn they have to work when most people don't - including holidays - and that in this "protect and serve" profession, danger, risk, and sacrifice are all part of the job description.

And because new officers have the lowest seniority, they pay their dues by working nearly every holiday. It was years before I finally got to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family. And then I went into SWAT, and for the remainder of my career I was always on call.

Working long hours with few days off is an expected part of our profession. But those on call 24/7 like SWAT have the added stress and responsibility of rarely being able to "stand down."

While we may readily accept the sacrifices that hallmark being in LE and SWAT, our families are draftees, dragged into having to share and endure whatever sacrifices we must make. Our families are the true unsung heroes who deserve far more recognition and appreciation than they get. Remember to thank them for their support this year.

Busy Time of Year

So, what's it like to be SWAT during the holidays? In a word, busy. At least that's how it was during my years in Cleveland SWAT. From late November through early to mid-January, SWAT callups, raids, and searches seemed to increase in both frequency and intensity.

In SWAT's very early days, before pagers, we submitted a roster listing personnel and all phone numbers where they'd be for the holidays so they could be reached in the event of a callup. Not surprisingly, callup notifications often took a long time. Pagers helped speed up the process somewhat, and the team pager streamlined things even more. As technology continues to advance, costly notification delays are no longer a factor in SWAT callups.

Whether or not your team is actually called out on holidays, you're always aware you can get called out at any time. While most in SWAT eventually get used to being on call, the possibility is always in the back of your mind.

SWAT callups on holidays are like lightning strikes in a thunderstorm - hitting all around you. And you know some team in your area is going to be called out. For some reason, we had a lot of Thanksgiving callups, but Christmas callups were rare. I guess we were lucky since nearly every Christmas some other team in our area would have to handle a SWAT callup. The luck of the draw, I guess.

But with the exception of Christmas day, callups, raids, and searches picked up dramatically in my area. Raids and searches were a daily thing, and barricade and hostage situations seemed to occur in clusters of two, three, or four in a row.

The reality is all of LE is busy during the holiday season - something all street cops know firsthand. More people out and about means more criminals and crime. More crime means more arrests and confrontations. Which in turn means more SWAT missions. The busier all of LE is, the busier SWAT is.

Take a Break

However, even police (and SWAT) need breaks during the holiday season. Like many teams, Cleveland SWAT has an annual Christmas party. Of course, as luck would have it, there were several years when it was rudely interrupted by a SWAT callup. "Murphy's Law" respects no one.

Cleveland SWAT also participated in Cleveland PD's annual "Cops and Kids" program,  delivering Christmas toys to children in need. SWAT's location was Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital. It was a thoroughly rewarding and memorable experience involving some of us in uniform and the world's biggest, baddest Santa and his elves.

One particular "Cops and Kids" stands out as my most memorable. That year we delivered Christmas toys to the children of two Garfield Heights police officers who had been killed in an on-duty vehicle accident in our city. One of the most heart-wrenching experiences imaginable. That same year a third Garfield Heights police officer was shot and killed and his partner was shot and critically wounded. It was a devastating year for any department, especially one with only around 50 officers. At least we were able to help in some small way.

Holiday Tragedies

Especially during the holidays, police see people at their very best and also at their very worst. The unfortunate fact is tragedies, crimes, accidents, etc., can and do occur during the holidays. Family gatherings sometimes resurrect feuds that turn into disputes - and worse.

Some of the most intense SWAT callouts seem to occur during the holiday season. One cold, early January morning, we responded to a SWAT callup of a mother holding her two children hostage. This was one callup when time was not on our side. The clock had started ticking before we were even called.

The mother had shot and killed her sleeping husband in the back of the head, then shot and wounded her two children and shot and wounded herself. When we arrived, she was barricaded in a rear bedroom with the two children.

Realizing the children were badly wounded and were bleeding out, we deployed a NFDD (Noise/Flash Diversionary Device) simultaneous with a hostage rescue, but not before the suspect managed to shoot herself a second time. She fought with officers before finally being subdued. The woman died en route to the hospital. Fortunately, both children were rescued and rushed to the ER, and both survived.

It was a holiday tragedy, but we didn't lose any members of our team and we were able to save two kids' lives that day. Sometimes that's the best we can do. 

On that note, I'd like to leave you with the following words from Tommy Horan, my good friend and fellow retired CPD SWAT sergeant. Here's his annual toast to all who protect and serve:

We thank God for keeping all of us safe for another year, and we ask God (whoever your God may be) to keep all of us, and our families, safe in 2011.

About the Author
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SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)
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