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The gift of hope: A holiday fable

A message from a homeless man shows a police chief how to move forward from despair to purpose and prioritize his employees’ wellness

Burning candle in woman hands over black. Religious christmas spa and wellness concept

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Act I.
Chief Anderson stared vacantly out of his office window. It was a beautiful fall morning. The leaves on the trees had just started their seasonal transformation from dark greens to muted reds, oranges and browns. But the chief wasn’t seeing any colors in that still and silent moment.

His iPhone slipped out of his limp hand and crashed to the floor. The sharp sound of the glass and metal device, the chief wasn’t a fan of phone cases, striking the hard linoleum pierced through his shocked and foggy brain, startling him. He gazed down toward his feet, furrowing his thick black brows in concentration, wondering how his phone got down there.

“Bill?” He faintly heard his name being called through the phone now lying on the ground. “Are you all right? Are you still there?”

Embarrassed, even though he was alone in his office, Bill Anderson picked up his undamaged iPhone and placed it against his ear.

“Yes,” he replied. “I’m still here. I’m OK. My darn phone just slipped out of my hand.”

The person calling Bill didn’t believe him, but she didn’t press the issue. Pam Lincoln knew exactly what Bill was going through. She’d been through it herself six months, eight days, two hours and 49 minutes ago.

“I’m going to send one of my officers to pick you up and drive you here to the scene,” she said gently.

“No, Pam. That won’t be necessary,” Bill replied gruffly. “I’ll drive myself. I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Bill,” Pam said. “Let me send one of my officers.”

“I appreciate the offer, Pam. I do,” Bill said. “But I’m fine. I promise. I’ll see you in 20.”

Bill pressed the red button on his iPhone to end the call before Pam could protest any further. And Bill didn’t have the energy for an argument right now.

He had what felt like a million arrangements to make. He needed to call the city manager and the mayor. He needed to call Tom’s parents. He needed to text his deputy chief. He needed to call his wife. He needed to prepare a press release. But first, he needed to go see Tom.

Act II.

“I’ll be home soon! Bye, honey,” Bill said, a little more forcefully than he had intended, before ending the call to his wife. He was parked outside a local diner. He didn’t want to go home right now. He needed some Bill time. Seeing Tom was rougher than he’d thought it was going to be.

So many thoughts and feelings were swirling around inside of him. Mostly he felt old and tired and sad. Maybe it was time for him to hang up his gun belt and do something else with his golden years. Maybe…

Ever since the whole George Floyd incident and the ensuing unrest it had sparked, Linda, his high school sweetheart and wife of 32 years, had been not-so-subtly sharing her feelings about his retirement. Maybe she was right. The job had certainly changed a lot since he had graduated from the academy, what was it, 29 years ago? The job, the public’s opinion, the officers and professional staff. Everything had changed. He paused his musings long enough to finally get out of his SUV and head toward the diner.

“Hey, chief!” called out a voice from his right.

Tensing and reflexively moving his hand toward his concealed Glock 21 .45 caliber pistol, which was holstered on his left side, Bill quickly turned toward the voice. He wasn’t in uniform. How did the guy know that he was a chief?

“Calm down, chief,” the man said as Bill spun around to face him. The man’s empty hands were raised in front of him, and they were making calming gestures like one would toward a spooked horse.

Bill saw that it was a homeless guy. Less dirty than most, but definitely homeless. The man was about Bill’s age, but who could really tell with these folks? Bill relaxed a bit; the guy gave off a harmless vibe. And Bill trusted his vibe meter. It was never wrong.

“How can I help you, sir?” Bill asked.

“It’s me who wants to help you,” the homeless man said with a wry smile.

“What do you mean?” asked Bill, the surprise evident on his face.

“If you buy me dinner,” said the homeless man, still smiling, “I’ll tell you why chiefs wear stars.”

“What?” Bill asked again, this was not even close to what he had expected the homeless man to say.

“I said,” repeated the homeless man, “If you buy me dinner, I will tell you why chiefs wear stars. And why it’s not time for you to retire yet.”

Act III.

Both men sipped their coffees as they waited for the server to bring their food.

Bill gestured with his coffee cup to the homeless man and said, “I’ve kept my part of the bargain, your turn now. But first, how did you know I was a police chief?”

The homeless man sighed heavily and answered, “I used to wear stars myself. In the Army. Two of them. Once you’ve felt it yourself, it’s easy to spot the weight of command on someone else’s shoulders.”

“You were an Army general?” Bill asked, surprised, but also not. Now that the man had said it, Bill could see the lingering command presence in the man’s bearing. “What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“My story is for another time,” said the general. “Tonight I’m here to talk about you.”

Bill nodded in acceptance and gestured for the general to continue.

“Have you ever considered that you can’t see stars during the day?” the general began. “They only become visible at night. Chiefs wear stars on their collars to remind them that their job is to shine the light of hope when times are at their darkest.”

Bill nodded, soaking in every word. He pulled out his iPad and began to take notes as the general shared his wisdom.

The server returned with their food. The two leaders ate and talked and drank their coffees. Ninety minutes later, Bill excused himself to go to the restroom.

When Bill returned to the table, the general was gone. He looked around the restaurant and didn’t see him inside. He looked outside the window and didn’t see him in the parking lot. The general had vanished as mysteriously as he had appeared. Bill shrugged his shoulders and sat down to finish his coffee.

He opened his iPad and looked again at the notes he had written down during their earlier strange conversation:

  • My employees’ job is to fight crime. My job is to fight despair.
  • I can’t delegate the care of my employees to the wellness team members. I need to be the primary caregiver in the organization.
  • I need to have daily in-person interactions with as many of my employees as I possibly can.
  • In these interactions I need to do three things: 1. Inquire about their welfare. 2. Let them know that I appreciate the work that they are doing. 3. Remind them that tomorrow is going to be better than today.
  • I need to have regular communication with my employees. I can do this in person or via video recording, but not just through a printed newsletter. We are well into the video age. My people need to see my face and hear my voice at least once a month.

Despite the heaviness of the long day, Bill felt the general had given him a renewed sense of purpose. He understood now that what he had been feeling these past few years was a growing sense of helplessness. He’d felt powerless to prevent so many bad things that were happening to his beloved profession and the people he loved and worked with. Tom’s death had been the last weight that threatened to bring it all crashing down around him.

But, just in time, the general had prevented that. Bill now realized he still had a lot of good work to do. All thoughts of retirement vanished in the light of his new mission. He was going to do everything in his power to prevent another employee under his command from taking his or her own life. No matter what was happening outside the walls of his department, he was going to make sure that inside those walls, inside their community, his employees were going to feel safe, valued and happy. This holiday and every day that he was in charge, he was going to give his employees the gift of hope.

Coach Paul Conor, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist and management consultant who has been working with law enforcement leaders for more than 20 years. He is a former US Marine infantry officer, who led Marines in combat during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Coach Paul is an award-winning author, California state-certified Team Building Workshop facilitator and former university professor. He is also a reserve lieutenant with the Orange County (California) Sheriff’s Department.