As the Christmas season is here once again, I’d like to offer once again my short story, The Cop Who Busted Santa.
Some years back I wrote a short story called A Christmas Crime Story, which was about a mean, anti-Christmas cop who was later redeemed. You can read A Christmas Crime Story via the link at the bottom of the page.
The below short story, which appeared originally in American Crime Magazine, is a prequel to A Christmas Crime Story.
The Cop Who Busted Santa
By Paul Davis
I truly love the Christmas season. I love holiday lights, Christmas music, colorful church services, and gatherings of family and friends. I also love walking through shopping districts and watching people buying presents and celebrating the joyous holiday, despite the cold weather.
While walking along East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia this Christmas season, I came across John Snyder, a retired Philadelphia police officer. His large, pan-shaped head was now nearly bald, and his stocky frame held a few more pounds since I last saw him some years ago. He still displayed his gruff demeanor, but there was also a shy smile on his face.
John Snyder was not known for his smile.
Back in the 1990s I had written several stories about Sergeant Snyder in my crime column in the local newspaper. Most of them were unflattering, but he never complained, and he still greeted me, albeit reluctantly, when I saw him at the 3rd police district in South Philly or at cop bars.
About that time Sergeant John Snyder became famous as “The Cop Who Busted Santa.”
On Christmas Eve of that year, while patrolling the 3rd district in South Philadelphia, Snyder pulled over a driver who had performed what is known locally as “the South Philly Roll,” which is a deliberate failure to fully stop at a stop sign or traffic light.
Walking up to the driver’s car window, Snyder was not amused by the driver, who was dressed as Santa Claus with a huge false white beard. He greeted Snyder with a hearty, but somewhat slurred, “Ho, Ho, Ho. Merry Christmas.”
“You ran that stop sign back there,” Snyder said in his low, gruff voice that more than one cop called his “bark.”
George Jankowski, the man dressed as Santa, laughed loudly and his huge belly, which was his own and not costume stuffing, shook in the front car seat.
“Oh, really,” Jankowski replied. “Sorry about that officer, but I’m on my way to an orphanage, here in my modern-day sleigh, to deliver toys for the poor, little orphans.”
“It’s sergeant, not officer, and there’s no excuse for running a stop sign,” Snyder declared. “Have you been drinking? Get out of the car.”
Jankowski cursed and struggled to get out of the car.
“I’ve had a few, yeah, you know, it’s Christmas Eve.”
Snyder grabbed Jankowski and twirled him around and placed the man’s white gloves on the patrol car. He kicked his legs apart.
As a good number of people were out on the street that night, coming in and out of stores, bars and restaurants, a crowd gathered quickly and watched Snyder manhandle and search the man dressed as Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
The crowd was aghast. One bystander full of holiday spirit – both faith-based and liquid – called out to Snyder, “Hey Officer Grinch! Leave Santa alone.”
Others began to complain as well, and several children began to cry. One man walked out into the street towards Snyder to reason with him.
“Back off!” Snyder commanded. “Or I’ll place you under arrest too. I’ll arrest all of you people,” he barked to the crowd.
Snyder handcuffed Jankowski and squeezed the big man into the backseat of his patrol car. As Snyder drove off, he heard one bystander say sarcastically, "And a Merry, Merry Christmas to you too."
If this event had happened these days, several people would have recorded the arrest on their cell phone and uploaded the video to the Internet. And the video would have gone viral, as they say, with millions of people viewing it.
As it were, several outraged people contacted the police and complained, and more than one witness contacted the press. The 6 o’clock TV news stations all ran the story with on-air interviews with the angry witnesses to the arrest.
The daily newspapers followed up with the story on the front page and the story of the arrest of Santa on Christmas Eve appeared in newspapers and on TV and radio across the country on Christmas Day. The national press mocked Philadelphia and they all brought up an earlier story of Philadelphia sports fans who pelted Santa Claus with snowballs at a ball field.
“So much for Philadelphia being the “City of Brotherly Love,” one national TV newscaster commented dryly.
The TV 6 o’clock news reports on the arrests prompted a series of phone calls from the mayor, the police commissioner, a deputy police commissioner, a chief inspector, an inspector, and finally the 3rd district’s captain.
The captain drove to the station from his home and released Jankowski, who was being held over for arraignment. The captain, along with the lieutenant, chewed out Snyder, but the sergeant held his ground and defended his actions.
The captain reminded Snyder of his actions on the previous Christmas Eve.
“You locked up a bunch of kids for just being merry, remember? And you locked up those newlywed tourists who only wanted you to take their picture,” the captain said. “What are you, a one-man Christmas joy-killer?”
Later that evening, Jankowski went on TV and told his story. He complained of police abuse and false arrest and said he was going to sue the city. He also said that while in police custody, he had to call his son and tell him to go and pick up the car, which had been towed on Snyder's orders, as the car had the presents for the orphaned children.
Jankowski, dressed again as Santa, delivered the toys to the Catholic Orphanage on Christmas Day. He was accompanied by reporters and the story was carried widely across the nation as a positive story on Christmas.
The day after Christmas Jack Ferrari, a 3rd district cop that I had gone out on a ride-along with and wrote about in my column, called and invited me to meet him at the Penrose, a South Philly diner.
He was on his lunch break with his partner in a booth and I slid in and joined them.
Ferrari slipped me a piece of paper that had Jankowski’s name and phone number on it. The note also had Snyder’s phone number on it. I placed the note in my jacket pocket.
Ferrari’s partner, an officer named Bill Hanson, said Snyder was a son of a bitch - but don't use my name, he added.
“He’s a cheap and miserable bastard,” Hanson continued. “No wonder his wife kicked him out and even his kids won’t speak to him. And he wears boxing gloves at the bar.”
“He wears boxing gloves just so he can’t reach into his pocket and take out money to buy a guy a drink,” Hanson said. “OK, not really, but I’ve never seen him buy anyone a drink.”
Ferrari noted, to be fair, that Snyder also never took a drink when other people were buying. He simply stood alone at the bar and nursed a beer or two.
“Snyder is a tough sergeant, but when there is a shooting or altercation involving his officers, Snyder dives right in,” Ferrari said. “He also makes sure that higher-ups never mess with his guys. He took the heat for us many times,” Ferrari said.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Hanson agreed.
I left the diner and called Jankowski. He was still full of rage and he bent my ear over the phone for an hour. I also called Snyder to get his side, but he refused to talk about the incident.
“No comment,” he barked over the phone.
I felt bad for Snyder, as he was one of those sad people who only felt sorrow and bitterness on Christmas. I hoped that he would someday discover true happiness, especially at Christmas.
I published my “The Cop Who Busted Santa” column in the local paper later that week.
This incident was unfortunate, but it led to some positive actions. The Catholic orphanage received a lot of publicity and donations poured in. Jankowski sued the City of Philadelphia and received a substantial settlement, which he used to establish a Christmas charity fund.
The incident also united a good number of people in their critical response to the well-publicized arrest of Santa.
And, lo and behold, they also began to speak to each other and to their children of the true meaning of Christmas; joy, love, charity, and the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
And yes, I got a column out of it.
© Paul Davis 2018.
You can read A Christmas Crime Story via the below link: