Christmas is a time to gather around a tree with your loved ones and see the way their faces light up when they open the present you got them. It’s holly and jolly. For some people. For other families, it can be another year of disappointment. As much as they would like to, they may not be able to provide gifts for their families. It’s difficult for children to understand why they don’t get any toys and their friends at school do; that’s where Santa Cop comes in.
Officer Reese Bullard of Mesquite Police Department would see families with nothing under their tree–or no tree at all. So, in 1982, he decided to use his own money to buy presents for families in the low-income apartment complex he patrolled.
The following years, he arranged for those families to keep getting presents every Christmas. Other officers on the force would pitch in to help finance the project, and eventually it caught on at the department. Officer Bullard would swap his uniform for a Santa costume and drop off gifts. No one knew who the badge behind the beard was at first.
Officer Bullard came to work in Mesquite after serving in Vietnam. He was 43 commendations during his career, more than anyone ever before.
“He was really very concerned about the community,” Assistant Chief Bob Piccioni said. “He took the time to talk to people and get involved in things. He wasn’t the kind of guy to just go out there and do everything by the book; he’d take everything into account.”
Officer Bullard passed away due to a stroke in 1993. He served his community until the very last minute; he had just finished a meeting for Santa Cop a few hours prior to his death. The program ran for a decade under his watch and continues to run today, providing gifts to hundreds of families every year. Officer Williams, his partner, now leads Santa Cop.
“This time of the year family violence goes up, and the No. 1 issue that causes family violence is finances,” he said. “We can take care of a need that may make that family have a better Christmas all around, without tension and fighting. In that way it also serves as sort of a crime prevention tool.”
The program coordinates with MISD and the fire department to identify families in need. It then cross-references a database to make sure they aren’t already receiving help from a different organization. Then, bags are stuffed full of toys that have been collected months in advance.
“They hug you on your leg and say, ‘Thank you,’” Williams said. “When you see those kinds of things and the parents crying, it’s special. We don’t always get to help people in that manner. It’s nice to be able to do that.”
This year, MISD donated $18,000 to the program.
Anyone looking to contribute to the kindness can volunteer. Volunteers will be organizing toys and putting them in bags this week. On Saturday, from 7 a.m to 12 p.m, volunteers will be distributing toys to families at Mesquite High School. You can volunteer at any of these, or all. Visit the SRO’s office for more information on how to sign up.