By Detective (Retired) Martin Swirko, Manchester NH Police Department
December 31, 2021
Some time ago, I wrote and posted a story about the Christmas I experienced in 2005 in Iraq. As I look back on it now, I am amazed that at age 50, I experienced what many generations which came before my own have experienced, that is finding themselves in a war zone on Christmas Day. I think many of us have seen movies or heard accounts of what it was like for soldiers who found themselves so far away from home and / or in combat during the holiday season. Although my experience pales to those of older veterans who spent Christmas, for example in places like Bastogne, the frigid mountains of Korea or steamy jungles of Vietnam, it was for me a life altering experience and those memories almost all bad, have been seared into my memory.
In as much as it is Christmas Eve, 2021 (16 years later) I thought I’d share a few of my experiences around the holidays during my police career. I probably won’t get this finalized posted until after Christmas, but hopefully I’ll have it up soon after.
I knew from personal experience that the holiday season can be melancholy for many people, and it certainly has been for me, since my dad died suddenly when I was young on the day after Christmas. When I add to that that my now deceased sister Jean Marie was born on December 26th, the Christmas season has always been a mixed bag for me, emotionally speaking. Having my own family and children and now grandchildren helps to take my mind off of that terrible Christmas and the ones that followed, but still, I have my moments.
Early in my career at the Manchester Police Department we had an unwritten rule. The week before and after Christmas, we tried to take it easy on the public. We didn’t look to write traffic summonses or search too hard for reasons to make minor arrests. If we did stop someone, we would usually not write them unless we felt we had to. We went to our calls, made arrests when we had to, but we kinda felt that we didn’t want to play the role of the Grinch so close to Christmas. Some times we had no choice. The usual routine for many of us was to get our coffee, park somewhere and drink it, drive around and show the colors, then alternately park in a place where the public could see you and try to take it easy. In any case, try as we might, the radio calls still came, police work went on, and although we tried to take it a bit easy, the things that drove crime and other things that necessitated a police response in our society such as drug addiction, (including alcohol abuse) violence, mental illness and the dynamics which drive family and domestic violence still continued and none of these dynamics took a break during the holiday season. Still though, I think it’s fair to say that most of us who worked Street Patrol didn’t want to jam citizens up with fines for things like parking tickets, non-inspection, motor vehicle equipment violations and even speeding infractions as the working public ran around trying to make ends meet both financially and otherwise to provide a nice holiday for their families.
Of course tragedies continued to occur like any other time of the year. Things like auto accidents with serious or fatal injuries, sudden deaths, and naturally many people continued to drive drunk and we had to deal with them. To me, nothing was sadder than going to someone’s home, decorated with Christmas tree and other gay regalia, because a spouse or child or parent had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. The holiday season only served to make the survivors pain and suffering cut even deeper. When we were sent to calls such as these, of course we had a job to do, yet it was important to show compassion to the family, and sometimes it was hard to do both at the same time.
Personally, as I logged some time on the job, especially on midnight shifts, if I wasn’t busy I’d dispatch myself to sudden death calls that were given to a unit nearby just to help out. This type of call was normally a one officer call for service, but I found if there was a second officer present, one could help the family with notifications and other things, while the cop who “owned” the call did his or her on-scene death investigation relatively unimpeded.
One thing I learned early during my police career was that the holidays, Christmas in particular, brought out the worst behavior in many people and their families for any number of reasons. I remember working day shift during the first Thanksgiving I was on the job. I didn’t know what to expect that day. As, it turned out, I got and answered only five calls that dayshift. Each one was a domestic or some type of family dispute. The first call of the morning, when I arrived, I was greeted by the sight of furniture and various home appliances and clothing strewn down and along the stairs from a second floor apartment and into the rear alley. It seems someone caught someone cheating and they reacted by throwing the furnishings of that apartment out and down the stairs, the message sent being clear. When the guy came home, he was greeted with this surprise.
Legally, we could have charged the woman with criminal mischief by damaging property that both parties had a “legal equitable interest” in (such as a TV that belong to them both) but, for better or worse, we decided not to charge the woman. The man didn’t want her charged in any case, so we sent him on his way, advising him it would be possible to seek charge for damage to his property if he changed his mind and I then completed a police report. Was that the right decision? At the time, we thought so. Five or six years later, we might have absolutely made that arrest without question as the philosophy for police response to domestic violence evolved and changed.
As the five calls were spread throughout the day, I spent my downtime just parked and watching traffic go by downtown. I didn’t do much, but I was visible to the public and a few people actually walked up to me and thanked me for working on Thanksgiving. I might have stopped one vehicle for being uninspected, just to show some activity on my Daily, but I gave the offender a not too stern warning and then wished him a happy Thanksgiving and sent him on his way with a smile. I hope he was appreciative.
I never did have to arrest anyone that day, but the disputes I went to were loud, very intense and often involved several family members who got together for the holiday. There were long festering family issues that ran deep and there was no way we were going to help resolve any of those issues. As those get togethers went on during the day, the accusations mounted and it was obvious they all hated each other. I found myself wondering why these folks bothered to get together in the first place knowing the day would come to no better than it did.
I went to each call, patiently listened to each complaint, tried to council those that were involved, but none of these calls rose to criminal activity (yet) so all we could do was try to calm folks down, facilitate some temporary solution and move on, knowing none of these lingering problems would be solved that day or maybe ever. Finally, thankfully, 4PM came and I went home to have Thanksgiving Dinner with my family. I felt very fortunate indeed in many ways being with my family that day.
Working Thanksgiving, Christmas and even Easter Sunday was always tough, especially for your family. I always thought Day shift was probably best, assuming you didn’t get held over for one of many reasons, and the worst case scenario was that you’d get home in time to have Christmas dinner with your family and spend the evening with your kids as they showed you what Santa had left them that morning. Working 4-12 or 6PM – 2PM wasn’t great. You could share an early dinner, but it got really old having to leave the house, your family and guests at 2 or 2:30 in the afternoon, or 5 in the evening, knowing that everyone would either be gone or asleep by the time you got home.
To me, worst of all choices was working Midnights on those holidays. You would get home around 8 or 8:30AM on the holiday, try to get one or two hours sleep (if you had kids on Christmas morning you couldn’t get that) then get up for all the festivities. You’d be up all day, and just never get around to taking a short nap before it was time to shower, get dressed then head in for 11PM Roll call. Those shifts were miserable. One Christmas night, after being up all day, I caught an accident with personal Injury right out of the barn, and of course one driver was DWI, so not only did I have to do the accident, I also arrested and processed the DWI. That took most of the night. By the time I got home on the 26th, I was like a zombie.
I remember working 6-2:30 one Thanksgiving night. I had foolishly hoped to spend a quiet night, maybe even be able to stop in and visit a few relatives and friends during my shift. That was not in the cards for me. The Shift Commander grabbed me out of roll call and sent me up to the Elliot Hospital I.C.U to guard a prisoner. I reluctantly grabbed my stuff and another unit dropped me at the hospital. I learned that earlier in the day, a women was driving to her Mom’s house for Thanksgiving dinner along Front St. and some drunk crossed the center line and plowed into her head on. They were both seriously hurt, and both in the ICU. Normally when we arrested someone that required hospitalization, we owned that prisoner until he or she was arraigned bedside by a judge, and at that point they became the responsibility of the Sheriff’s Department.
The good thing about that night was that the nurses and staff that were working made me comfortable and everyone had brought food and desserts in and I feasted like a king. I was warm and dry inside, and my prisoner wasn’t going anywhere as he was unconscious and hooked up to all kind of machines.
However, the night did take kind of a nasty turn as the families of both the victim and the drunk driver showed up at the same time, and throughout the night and I had to keep them separated and break up arguments and near fist fights that broke out between the two contingents. I came to wish I was out on the street instead of stuck in the ICU dealing with traumatized and angry family members. I even had one family member of the victim yell at me telling me that I and the rest of the cops are lazy and don’t do enough to arrest drunk drivers and as a result of our indifference their loved one was lying near death. What can you say to that? Nothing I said to them would have mattered, so I kept my composure, extended my condolences when appropriate and tried to lay low until 2AM when I would thankfully be relieved.
I never did work during the Christmas Season my first year on the job because I was injured and nearly killed on duty during a bar brawl at the old Salty Dog, in what was once a legendary incident within MPD lore. The next year, I went into work at Midnight on December 23, and was assigned inside as a 911 operator. Since it was technically Christmas Eve and the shift commander was off the next night, he planned on buying Chinese food that night for all the inside personnel.
Early in my shift that particular night I took a call. The caller yelled into the phone that he heard a gunshot up stairs and heard a body hit the floor. He gave the address and offered nothing beyond repeating what he initially told me. He also refused to identify himself, which I knew was a problem. Here was a witness to what turned out to be a murder and I felt it was imperative to identify him. After notifying Dispatch 1 of the potential “hot” call, I kept the caller on the phone and eventually was able to convince him to identify himself and talk to the police when they arrived. I thought I did a pretty good job identifying a significant witness in a homicide and took some satisfaction for it.
What I remember about that call as the events unfolded was that there was a bunch of juveniles in an apartment and the story was that two of them got into an argument over a sub sandwich. So, one pulled out a gun and shot the other dead. I was not involved in the case other than to have taken the initial 911 call and writing a report about it. However, that call also put an end to the shift commander’s plan to treat us with Chinese Food that night as we went on to make all necessary notifications, manned and designated a separate channel devoted to the units at the scene and so on. For the rest of the night those of us assigned to communications ran plate numbers, searched for contacts for various persons of interest and aided the murder investigation in any way required as well as keep up with the normal ongoing communication functions.
About 22 years later, I was working a paid detail in the emergency room at Catholic Medical Center. Usually, when I wasn’t actively helping out (like help holding down a combative patient while nurses involuntarily inserted a catheter into that patient) or walking around being seen by staff, patients and visitors, I sat near the check in desk. I normally only listened enough in case the patient signing in would use the words suicidal or homicidal. If I heard those words it caught my attention for sure and I hovered nearby. Otherwise I tried to let the patient believe I wasn’t listening so they had some privacy. That was particularly true for patients signing in for drug related issues, or sexual or domestic assaults. In those cases I would normally get up and walk around so the patient would feel more at ease explaining their problem knowing I wasn’t listening. On this night, I overheard the patient’s name, and I remembered it from that Christmas Eve all those years before.
I immediately recognized the patient’s name as the same as that homicide victim so many years ago. When the gentleman went to the waiting room I approached him, (after having a short debate with myself) I introduced myself to him and politely asked him if he was related to the victim I remembered from that night those years ago. Yes, he told me, It was his brother who was murdered that night. He was pleasantly surprised that I remembered that event, his brother, and his family so many years later. I’m sure that the cops and detectives who worked that case were long retired by then. He talked with me about it for a while, until he got called out back. He told me about the pain and loss his family suffered that day before Christmas, and how tough that time of year still was for him and his family. He thanked me for chatting with him about it and I walked away glad I took the time to inquire.
Sometimes the saddest stories weren’t always the most dramatic ones. I remember working midnights one Christmas morning. At about 1AM I was sent to a domestic dispute at a six family house on Maple St. near Merrimack and Manchester Streets. As I climbed the staircase to the third floor, I found a Christmas tree with all its lights and ornaments lying halfway down the stairs, broken glass and several wrapped gifts which had also been thrown down the stairs. After I climbed over the tree and remainder of the holiday detritus, I entered the apartment.
Inside I found a nearly hysterical women, several young children who were cowering and afraid, probably as much of me as the guy who threw their tree and presents down the stairs, and the victim’s boyfriend. The kids were very distraught and seeing them cry about the Christmas tree which had been thrown down the stairs broke my heart. Yes, I still had a heart back then. My own kids were at home tucked away safely in their beds dreaming about Santa Claus and Christmas Day, like all kids should be doing. Not so for these children that Christmas Eve..
As soon as I entered the apartment, I remembered the family. I had been there some time ago, and had arrested the same guy for assaulting this woman. The case never went anywhere because the victim refused to go to court and testify. “Oh, well” I thought back when the case was dismissed, and back then most domestic assaults ended up being dismissed for lack of prosecution by the vicim. “I did my job”.
This victim who was very distraught, ran up to me and started angrily dressing me down because whenever she calls the Manchester Police they do nothing for her, but her boyfriend (who was calmly sitting in the corner of the living room as though nothing unusual was happening) was always beating her and she wondered if it would take her murder before the police would help her. Of course this wasn’t true, and I had personal knowledge in her case the her gripe about us was far from true. To make matters worse her loud allegations against the police didn’t sit well with me. The terrified children also made me angry as I started to interrogate her about the previous arrest I had made in that very apartment. I went on to make a common mistake that many cops make: I chastised her for not following through when I did arrest him, and laid some of the blame for that nights events at her feet. That certainly didn’t help the situation any. A few years later, when I served in the Domestic Violence Unit I learned that the best thing to do was tell an uncooperative victim that I was worried about her and her children’s safety and when she was ready to come to us, we’ll be there. Always leave that door open for the day that victim decided to seek help I later learned and placed into practice. I often got positive results from that approach.
Instead, I took it personal that she basically dropped charges when I arrested this guy last time and went on to scold her for it. It wasn’t because I didn’t care about her. I was frustrated that she didn’t help me help her and I took it personally, which is also a common and big mistake for cops who work with domestic violence victims. Eventually, I got the story of the nights events clear and I arrested this guy once again. I walked him down the stairs to the wagon, stepping over the obstacles and leaving the broken Christmas tree, it’s ornaments and the presents behind me. I held on to his wrists that were handcuffed behind him so he wouldn’t fall, although it wouldn’t have bothered me too much if he took a tumble and cracked his head. I remember being angry at the victim, but more so I felt so very badly for those kids who’s Christmas had been ruined by this jerk.
A few years later, when I was assigned to the DV unit, I went to a disturbance in a different neighborhood. When I arrived, I found the family I remembered from that Christmas Eve, minus the guy I arrested. The caller recognized me right off the bat, and she was noticeably disturbed and embarrassed by my presence. I knew immediately her recollection of her previous contacts with me were less than positive, despite the fact that I did arrest her batterer multiple times. I realized at that point how much damage I did that night when I admonished her in front of her kids and blamed her for not following through on my first arrest. On this occasion, I took the time to have a long talk with her, and thankfully, after helping to resolve whatever the problem was that night, I think we both felt better. I know I did.
There was one year when I was in Detectives when we caught a homicide the night after Christmas. In this case, the victim got into an argument at a nightclub and after he left, the people he argued with chased him in a car and ended up shooting and killing him during a blizzard. What a crime scene that was, out on a street during a storm. I was fortunate that I had Christmas off, because that next night I didn’t I didn’t get home for a couple of days. That autopsy was the first homicide autopsy I attended by myself. I’d been to other autopsies, but this was the first homicide I was sent to cover by myself and because it was a homicide, I didn’t want to screw it up. The Medical Examiner, who knew me from other autopsies told me not to worry.
“When you see me pick up my camera, that’s your cue to get your camera out and take the same photos. I’ll let you know anything else you have to do if you miss it”. So I snapped away, made my notes, recovered evidence, to include the bullet that killed him, which was still lodged in his skull. I also talked to the couple of medical students that were present and observing, trying to come across as the confident, professional, big city (big for New Hampshire) detective playing my role in the investigation. The M.E. was gracious enough to describe his reason for everything he did (both for me and the medical students, without being obvious) and reminded me what was important enough to make notes of. He also reassured me that if the case ever got to trial, he’d be the one to testify about the autopsy itself, and all I’d have to testify to was that I took the photos, I was on hand when the seal was broken on the pouch that the victim had been placed within, and another items that I took into custody at the autopsy and placed into evidence. I guess I did OK, because after that and the few years that followed, I was one of only a few of detectives who were regularly assigned to attended autopsies for murder victims. I was also asked to have younger detectives accompany me in order to train them for this macabre yet vital final examination of the victim.
Although there are other stories I could share I think I’ll end on a positive note. I was working midnights, and one year at about 1AM on Christmas morning a call came over the radio for a baby not breathing. Any time a child was in distress, every cop in the area would fire up the blue lights, put the siren on “Yelp” or “Wail” and race to the scene, hoping he or she would be first there to help. This call was no different.
The call was from a Black family who lived in the old brick, residential mill buildings between Canal and Commercial Streets. I raced over to the address from the nearby West Side (well off my route) and when I got there, I saw several cops had beat me to it. By the time I got inside, the child was breathing on his own. The mother was weeping with joy as she held her baby close to her. EMS and the fire department arrived, and it seemed there were dozens of cops on the scene.
The Paramedics checked out the baby and advised the parents to let them take the child to the hospital just to be on the safe side. They would let Mom ride in back with the baby, and Dad would drive with a police escort, leading the ambulance with blue lights, siren and all to the hospital. As I walked out to the ambulance, I noted a street full of Manchester Police cars, haphazardly parked, some doors left open and blue lights still flashing. The parents were stunned and grateful. They could not believe the response. So many cops dropped everything to help their child. Mom wept some more. Dad was teary eyed, and by the time the baby was in the ambulance, Mom hugged each and every one of us and thanked us. We shyly accepted her embraces and kisses on the cheek as she went from cop to cop (and firefighters) as the Paramedics nervously but patiently waited to roll. Never have I experienced a more heart warming response. The scene turned almost joyous and festive as we all wished each other a heartfelt Merry Christmas as we went on our wayback to where we were supposed to be.
I only mention the fact that the family was Black because of all the racial tension that sometimes exists between cops and the Black community in our society today. I want to stress that none of us cared who that child was. It didn’t matter if the family was Black, White, Latino or Asian. It didn’t matter if the father was a well known convicted felon or local shithead. We were going to get there and save that child’s life, any way we could. We didn’t assume that the cop assigned to the call or any another cop was closer. We dropped everything and went. No one had to send us. I think those parents didn’t see skin color that night. What they saw was a swarm of blue uniforms and a sea of flashing blue lights, all who had one thing in mind. To help. At 1AM on Christmas Day, we came. And we came in force. I was proud to wear that badge that night.
As the ambulance pulled away, I went back to my car and I really felt in the Christmas spirit. I felt good, even thought I did nothing meaningful to help. I think we all had smiles on our faces (this time) and almost jubilant that this potential Christmas Day tragedy ended on a happy note. Thankfully, the rest of the night passed rather uneventfully. I remember sitting in my cruiser later that morning as the sun came up and a cold but beautiful Christmas Day dawned. 8 AM came and I headed home to my family, wide awake and in a good mood. Santa had visited my house and for the moment, like the man said in the movie, all was right with the world.
Happy New Year and may 2022 be a great year for you all!