It was the night before Christmas, but on Police Officer Don Blankenship’s beat, the mood was far from joyous.
As he patrolled the city’s streets that night a few years back, he responded to myriad family fights, accidents, burglary calls and suicide attempts. At one point, he and other officers had to talk an armed man out of killing himself.
“I swear to God, the only Christmas tree I saw was the one standing at my door (at home) when I got off my shift,” said Blankenship, now a sergeant.
Police officers are accustomed to dealing with the darker side of life. But during the holiday season, the daily dose of human tragedy takes on an added dimension, making the job all the more difficult, they say.
Officers in the field say they must contend with an increased number of family fights, car accidents and child custody disputes along with the usual menu of crimes. According to psychologists and police counselors, the contrast between the holiday spirit and reality can seriously stress or depress officers.
“Emotionally everyone is so up. Then they have to deal with the down side,” said Cullen Ellingburgh, a deputy Orange County coroner. “Those poles seem so far apart that it takes a toll.”
Jerry Pierson, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said he doesn’t “know many officers who say this is a very happy time. They want to be home with their families, but instead they are out here refereeing fights. It’s not just something you can dispose of when you go home.”
Consider the way Placentia Sgt. Kim Redifer spent his last two New Year’s eves. In 1990, as Redifer responded to a call about a drive-by shooting, people at a nearby party threw rocks at him and other officers.
A year later, he witnessed a bank robber shoot himself in the head at the end of a high-speed police chase. “I close out holidays when I’m working. . . . Every once in a while, everything gets to you to a certain degree,” said Redifer, a 21-year veteran. “You just have to accept it and let it go. I don’t think about it. I saw him kill himself. But that makes no difference to me because I’ve been doing this too long.”
For police, the work intensifies as the approaching holiday heightens anxieties in households throughout their cities, and holiday gatherings ignite family battles. Add alcohol to the mix and police officers have their hands full.
“Seeing some of these things can be really devastating. An officer says he wishes there was something he could do, but often there isn’t,” Pierson said. “It’s supposed to be a joyous time, but our job isn’t always joyous.”
Costa Mesa Police Officer Harriet McClain worked her first Christmas Eve five years ago. She expected a slow night. Instead, she had to handle a serious traffic accident, a robbery, a kidnaping, two attempted murders and a stabbing. “It was just a wicked night,” she said.
The experience left her with a lesson: “It’s terrible to work Christmas. I feel like I’m disappointing my children and my husband and other family members as well as myself.”
And because the holidays are a time for reflection, officers, like anyone else, are susceptible to melancholy.
But that can become dangerously painful for the officer whose memories include someone he killed in the line of duty, said psychologist Eric Gruver, who works with officers in Huntington Beach, Fullerton and Santa Ana.
“Even if the shooting is completely justified, it takes a time like Christmas for (officers) to reflect on what the family is going through or what (the person he shot) was like as a child,” Gruver said.
For some officers, a tough holiday call might remind him of a similar situation in his own past. “He might relive the event . . . and feel those same feelings,” said Santa Ana Police Lt. George Saadeh.
Many police departments offer a variety of counseling programs and psychiatry services to officers who feel the stress of the season.
In Santa Ana, officers can enroll in peer counseling with fellow cops who are trained to discuss the emotional toll of policing. The department also has psychiatrists on call if an officer needs professional help.
Gruver suggests that officers use the season to analyze their lives and decide what is most important to them.
“It’s important to keep things in perspective,” he said. Officers should “take some time to reflect on what it is they want to be and what they are working for.”
For some officers, getting through the period means putting on some defensive emotional armor.
“In order to survive, you have to,” Redifer said. “It’s basically a defense mechanism that allows us to get through the fatal tragic situations.”