Pensacola. I am at Target this morning. Not far from the Winn-Dixie on Bayou Boulevard.
The parking lot is swamped with black-and-white Chevy Tahoes. Lightbars on the rooftops. Push bars mounted on the bumpers. Cop cars.
I walk into Target to find a gaggle of police officers, lingering in the foyer. Badges. Tactical boots. Duty belts. Ballistic vests.
The officers are in jocular moods, laughing and horsing around. Each cop is pushing a shopping buggy because today is the annual Pensacola Police Department Christmas shop-a-thon.
The premise is simple: Throughout the year, police officers meet a lot of kids in the line of duty. Officers meet children who are trapped in bad situations. They meet kids who live in squalor. Children of drug addicted parents. Children whose parents have been arrested. Children of suicide. Kids who have nobody.
The Pensacola officers remember these children’s names. Then, the cops secretly add these names to a mounting holiday list at the station.
“When Christmas rolls around,” says one officer, “we all come to Target and go buck wild buying gifts.”
This isn’t an official city program, with official city funds, with an officially Marketed Name™. No, this is just a few cops who decided to play Santa.
These officers have been doing this for 15 years, just because they want to. Private donations pay for everything. A lot of cops contribute out of their own wallets.
“We don’t do this for press,” says one cop. “We do this because we actually know these kids.”
I am wandering the aisles with Officer Dave. Dave is pushing a buggy, shopping for a 5-year-old boy. Dave works patrol. His chest-mounted radio keeps squawking as he’s browsing through the stuffed-animal section.
“Kids like fuzzy bears,” says Officer Dave, throwing a stuffed animal into the cart. “Let’s get him a fuzzy bear.”
I meet an officer who is shopping for a little girl whose father killed her mother. When the police arrested the child’s father, they met the girl. The kid was a wreck. Nobody in the department has been able to forget this child.
“She is always in our hearts and in my mind,” says the officer. “We shop for her every year.”
I meet Tara, who works in the department as a victims advocate. She grew up in the housing projects. She tells me her family had nothing when she was a girl.
When she started working for the Pensacola Police, Tara was the first to sign up for the annual PPD shop-a-thon.
One year for Christmas, Tara was delivering presents to the same housing projects where she grew up. After the officers delivered presents to the throngs of happy kids, Tara noticed a teenage girl, sitting on the steps. The girl was sullen and distant.
Tara was walking past the girl when the girl told Tara she liked her shoes.
Tara stopped. She asked the girl what her size was. The girl was a size eight. Tara removed her own shoes and put them on the girl’s feet. Hugs were given. Tears were exchanged.
“I walked around the rest of the day delivering presents in my socks,” says Tara.
I run into a female school resource officer who is buying gifts for a student who came into her office one day for causing trouble.
Turns out, the rowdy child wasn’t a bad kid at all. He was just hungry. And a child will do strange things when he or she is starving to death.
The officer began bringing the kid food. Every day. Candy bars. Hot meals. Sacks of groceries to take home. You name it.
They became friends. One day, the child confided in the officer that his homelife was a mess. His parents were abusive. His mom was addicted. The boy walked two miles to school every day because nobody would give him a ride.
“He calls me Mom now,” the officer tells me. “I’ve never been anybody’s mom before. I want him to have a decent Christmas.”
A female officer, pushing a full buggy. She tells me she is shopping for an 18-year-old foster girl. When the child turned 18, the kid was no longer the State of Florida’s problem. The group foster home kicked her out. Not metaphorically, but worse, literally.
So there she was, on her 18th birthday, standing on a street corner. Homeless.
The officer helped the girl find a house to rent. The officer got furniture donated. Whenever the girl can’t find transportation to school, the officer calls an Uber and pays for it herself. They are friends. They text each other every day.
“I’m going to give this girl the best Christmas she’s ever had,” says the officer.
When the shop-a-palooza is over, the checkout lanes are clogged with red buggies and cheerful officers. The carts are all lined up. And the Christmas spirit is so thick you could spread it on toast.
Nearby customers are staring, because it’s not every day you see dozens of cops buying toys.
One cashier is ringing up an officer. The cashier is visibly moved when she sees the stuffed animals. She says, “Why on earth do you do this?”
The cop’s eyes are bright. I won’t say there was a tear running down his cheek, but I won’t say there wasn’t, either.
“Are you kidding?” the officer says. “This is why I became a cop.”