By Brian Thiem
Christmas Day 35 years ago, I was working the 3-11 shift in Oakland. I had been recently reassigned back to patrol from the elite special operations section and was anxiously awaiting my transfer to Vice Narcotics. I knew when I signed on as a cop, I’d often work weekends and holidays during my career, but as hard as I tried to capture the holiday spirit, it wasn’t working.
Day Shift had been swamped, and calls were stacked, so right out of the chute, the dispatcher sent me to take a report on a cold home burglary. I interrupted the family’s Christmas Dinner and they were irritated with me arriving four hours after they had called. But I put on a smile (which, with the mood I was in, may have looked like a smirk) and tried to empathize with the couple whose day was ruined by a burglar who smashed a window and stole nearly every gift under their tree when they were at church.
On my way to take another report, this one on a car break-in, I stopped a motorist for driving 50 in a 30. After I checked to ensure he had a valid license, I wished him a Merry Christmas (we were allowed to say that back then), told him I’d let him off with a warning, and then bit my tongue as he muttered something about “f—king cops” as he rolled up his window and drove away.
Before I could finish the auto burglary report, I heard the broadcast of a hit and run accident. On the way to the scene, I spotted the responsible car (with a crumpled front quarter panel) and pulled him over. The driver was so drunk he fell down when I had him exit the vehicle. I called for the prisoner wagon, and after enduring his tirade of obscenities for ruining his Christmas, sent him off to jail.
I ran from call to call for the next several hours: family fights, drug dealing on the corners, and an accident with five injuries. Finally, more than halfway through my shift, the radio quieted, and the dispatcher released the first two units in my district for their meal break.
Although volunteers at the police officers association had cooked a beautiful dinner for officers, with only two units per district permitted to be out at a time, I resigned myself to the reality that my turn would not come up before the end of my shift.
As I drove across the district in search of joy and peace, I couldn’t help but dwell on my night’s activity. Every citizen I encountered blamed me for the crime, and the ones I arrested blamed me (big surprise) for ruining their Christmas.
I turned on Picardy Drive and crept down the street famous for its Christmas decorations. Although only a few blocks from Foothill Blvd., where open-air drug markets and shootings were common, Picardy was a sort of oasis. The Tudor-style houses were built in the 1920s. With their steeply peaked roofs and mini-turrets, they looked like tiny castles, and the entire street was lit up with Christmas lights.
I pulled to the curb, pulled a granola bar and bag of nuts from my pack, and tried to chase away the feeling of despair and hopelessness that had enveloped me. As I munched on my makeshift dinner, I spotted movement in my rearview mirror. A man was approaching my car with something in his hand. Since cops never know the intent of someone they encounter, we avoid allowing anyone to come up on us and trap us in our cars, where we’re unable to access our weapons and defend ourselves should it be an attack.
I opened the door and stepped out. The older gentleman continued toward me. “Is there something wrong in the neighborhood, officer?” he asked.
Since most citizens in major cities only see cops when something is wrong, I couldn’t fault the man for his question. “The radio was quiet for a moment, so I thought I’d take a break.” I immediately regretted my confession and braced myself for a comment about lazy cops or a question about why I wasn’t out fighting crime.
“This is a peaceful street to do so.”
“You like hot chocolate?”
He handed me a Styrofoam cup. I popped the lid and saw steam rise through a layer of tiny marshmallows. I took a sip. “Thanks.”
“How’s your night going?”
I shrugged. “We tend to only see people at their worst. Tonight’s no different.”
“My first Christmas away from home, I was in the South Pacific,” he said. “Feeling sorry for myself. Scared of dying and having to kill Japanese soldiers I had no ill will against.”
The man appeared to be about the age of my father, who was also a WWII vet. “Thank you for your service,” I said. “I’m glad you made it back home.”
“My unit commander told us a million times why we were fighting, but not until I truly embraced who we were fighting for, did the war get easier. When people call the police, we’re too focused on our problem to thank you. But we’re grateful.”
I smiled. A real smile for the first time that night.
“I’m visiting my son down the street and we were just getting ready to sit down for some pie if you’d like to join us.”
Before I could come up with an excuse to decline, the radio crackled with a report of multiple shots fired about a mile away. I keyed the mic and acknowledged with my call sign.
I thanked the man for the hot chocolate, and as I climbed back into my car, he said. “Don’t forget that even when they don’t tell you or don’t even fully realize it themselves, thousands of people are grateful for what you and your fellow officers are doing tonight.”
I wish I could say the people I encountered the rest of that shift were more appreciative, but that would be a lie. However, I was different. I knew what I was doing was important to a lot of people. It didn’t bother me when the next bad guy I sent to jail cussed me out, because I knew there were other good citizens who would not be victimized by him that night, and maybe—just maybe—that arrest was the necessary kick in the ass that guy needed to turn his life around (although the cynical cop I was doubted it).
This holiday season, as in every one past, my thoughts are with the thousands of law enforcement officers who are working. May they know that what they’re doing is valuable, and even if no one says it, there are many citizens who are immensely grateful for their service and sacrifice.