'Beat' goes on for police who work Christmas Day
Ask police officers about working Christmas Day, and they'll give token answers: “It's just like any other shift.”
But some in the Mid-Mon Valley's law enforcement community admit that patrolling during the holiday requires compromise, family sacrifice and extra effort to maintain focus.
“On Christmas, I can tell you when you're riding around alone in your car, you miss your family, you miss enjoying the meal,” Southwest Regional Police Chief John Hartman said.
“It would be disingenuous for me to say that's something only police feel – you have firemen, EMS, nurses, reporters, waitresses that all have to work. But I will say this, police are very seldom called to a home on Christmas for a cup of coffee.”
Although other occupations require working on the significant holiday, police cannot afford to let their guard down. After 25 years with Rostraver Township and working many Christmas shifts, Lt. John Christner said it's all about mind set.
“You can't treat it as a different day from a safety standpoint,” Christner said. “You can't go into a situation feeling any different, and you still have to be ready for anything. Unfortunately, that's the way it is.”
Christner said it is vital to keep “your objective,” in mind.
“It's part of the ability you need to deal with protecting the peace,” he said. “If you're scheduled to work, you work, but that doesn't make it any easier.”
Carroll Township Patrolman Mike Fendya will work his normal shift from 3 to 11 p.m. today. In fact, Fendya's first shift for Carroll was Christmas Eve in 1994.
“I've had my fingers on a light and siren switch all my working years, so this is pretty much the norm for me,” Fendya said. “At Christmas, you get a little soft-hearted, but the bottom line is somebody needs to be here.”
Working each holiday presents unusual challenges, but Hartman has found Christmas Day can be anything but Peace on Earth.
“Everyone is talking about ‘Jingle Bells' and you're getting called in where somebody's laying there with their head open,” Hartman said.
“The longer you're in the job, the less impact it has, but it always has impact. I think the public forgets police officers are human beings, too.
“They think things just roll off our backs like water off a duck, and it doesn't.”
‘Tis the season
Not surprisingly, domestic disputes abound for officers working Dec. 25.
“It's usually signs of troubled economic times, increased stress, and it comes to a head and it happens to be on Christmas,” Christner said. “Some calls have merit, and other times they just call police and they expect you to resolve a situation that's been brewing for 15 or 20 years in a matter of 15 minutes.”
Fendya said he's found working the holiday to be feast or famine.
“I could be sitting here doing nothing and get a three-vehicle accident with entrapment one minute and a bad domestic the next minute,” he said. “It's a little tougher this time of year, no doubt. It's supposed to be that happy time of year.”
“My experience has been Christmas Day is a lot quieter than one would think, and when you do get calls, they tend to be serious,” he said. “Sometimes, you go into a house that's supposed to be festive, and it's difficult to wrap your mind around it. You would think that maybe one day, Christmas, you wouldn't have these problems, but you do. And it's one that needs government intervention.”
Fendya said people tend to be a little nicer around the holidays – unless they've been drinking.
“You still pull cars over for running a stop sign, and they'll say, ‘Can't you be Santa Claus and give me a break?'” he said, with a laugh. “Christmas is a little more laid back, but people do indulge. You have lovers and fighters. Some of them get a little lovey, and some of them want to fight. And we know who our ‘frequent flyers' are who you get called to time and time again.”
Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, officers are haunted by nightmarish scenarios they encountered over the years during holiday shifts.
Hartman said he's still bothered by a rape he responded to about 10 years ago on Christmas, when a minor was violated by a family member. The suspect was later convicted.
“Raping a minor is bad enough, let alone by a family member, but it all occurring on Christmas is horrendous,” Hartman said. “At first, I was thinking, ‘Are you serious? You have to be kidding me.' That's one that sticks in my mind.”
State Trooper Steve McKillop, assigned to the New Stanton barracks, laments seeing the faces of people whose homes have been burglarized on Christmas.
But the most disturbing, he said, is arresting a parent in front of their kids.
“Unfortunately, with the domestic violence laws there is no choice, and the kids remember when the police came and took Dad or Mom to jail on their favorite holiday,” McKillop said.
“We become the bad guy on that day, because when we show up, we are not there for milk and cookies. We still have to do our job. A lot of us don't want to work the holiday for many of those reasons.”
For Christner, Dec. 25 will always be a grim reminder. In 1993, Christner was working a double shift when his partner, Officer George “Alan” Dzyak, suffered a fatal heart attack while investigating an accident.
Dzyak was 38 years old; Christner was in his mid-20s.
“My mind is open to that every Christmas,” Christner said. “It's something that makes me reflect every year. There's very little I can think of that could be as traumatic as that.”
Duty over family
One of the most difficult challenges police face is missing out on family functions and memories. Hartman has seen both sides – his father was a police officer.
“I remember him being gone a lot of holidays and what it was like never really knowing from day to day if your father was coming back,” Hartman said. “The real heroes in this job are the families. We can talk about our difficulties, but we knew going into this what it was going to be.
“Our families have to sit back and wait. They had to buy into this, too, and they have to be recognized as well.”
Fendya admits it's a bit easier with him not having children or siblings. Fendya's parents are both deceased, but his wife, Tammy, has a large family.
“We go to her mother's house every Christmas Eve … They have presents and the kids will be there, and I'm going to miss it,” he said.
“There's times where you just want to go home and think, ‘Is this worth it?' But it comes back to my upbringing and what I believe. Family comes first, but if you've got to work, you've got to work.”
Christner remembers the difficulty of leaving two young children at home to unwrap gifts with him on patrol.
“It's hard for them to understand why their dad isn't home like other dads,” Christner said. “The older they get, the more they understand, but it doesn't make their disappointment any better.”
This year, the 30-year veteran will have Christmas off – and he plans to soak in the off time with his wife and two teenagers.
“Even with my kids being older, it's still very gratifying to be home with them,” Christner said. “Even after all these years, it's a pretty special day.”
McKillop added there's still a Christmas spirit for law enforcement on duty – and that small acts of kindness go a long way.
“On a good note, we get a lot of cookies at the station,” he said. “I don't know if people realize how much a ‘Merry Christmas!' or a ‘God bless you' means to the officer on patrol on Christmas Day.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.
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