ALTOONA — Seeing red and blue lights flashing behind her Thursday, Bonnie Fagan said a quick little prayer as she pulled her vehicle over to the curb on Third Street East.
Altoona police Officer Tim Peterson exited his squad car and approached her vehicle to tell Fagan he had pulled her over for speeding and got her driver’s license.
When Peterson returned to Fagan’s driver’s side window, he handed her the license and a Christmas bonus — a ham — and wished her “happy holidays.”
“That’s pretty awesome,” said Fagan, who was on her lunch break. “I love this kind of stuff. It builds trust and relationships in the community.”
Wanting to give back to the community, an anonymous city resident approached police Chief Jesse James with a cash donation, giving the chief and his staff a chance to reprise their roles of Santa and his elves.
Three years ago, a different anonymous donor, whom James referred to as “Secret Santa,” and his family donated more than $5,000 to the Altoona Police Department and asked officers to hand out $100 bills to people who might need a little holiday cheer.
Instead of arriving in sleighs pulled by reindeer, officers — essentially elves with badges — approached people on foot at local businesses and in parking lots or stopped their vehicles for minor traffic violations. Officers needed probable cause to initiate a traffic stop, but it was up to them to decide what sort of enforcement action was taken. The same applied Thursday.
“This is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever been part of,” James said in 2014. So, when a new donor stepped up in 2017, the chief was game — after clearing it with city Administrator Mike Golat.
“After we discussed it further, we came up with this idea of handing out hams, and (the family was) in agreement,” James said. “They felt it would be a good thing to do.”
The donated funds were used to purchase 26 hams from Woodman’s Markets, which opened a grocery in Altoona’s River Prairie development in 2015.
“They gave us a really good deal,” said James, who was hoping his crazy schedule Thursday would allow him to get in on some of the fun.
The plan was to have officers on the street hand out most of the hams, but James said the department’s school resource officer was going to talk to the Altoona school district counseling staff to identify a few families who might benefit from a ham.
“They wanted us to target people we thought would be in need,” said James of the donor family.
When she realized she was being pulled over Thursday, Anne Bickle’s heart sank a bit.
“I wanted to spend money on Christmas, and money is already tight,” said Bickle, figuring she might be issued a costly ticket for failing to completely stop at a stop sign on 10th Street West.
When Peterson handed her a ham, Bickle couldn’t believe it.
“This is awesome,” she said. “What a nice gesture.”
The effort also made Peterson feel good.
“To brighten someone’s holiday, or any day for that matter, is a good thing,” said Peterson, an Altoona High School graduate who joined the department almost two years ago. Plus, “I think anytime the public can see the police in a good light, it’s a good thing.”
When police handed out $100 bills in 2014, Lt. David Livingston predicted the effort would continue in some way as it has in Kansas City, Mo., where Larry Stewart, only known as “Secret Santa,” gave away money to needy strangers for more than two decades.
Stewart — whose identity became known only a short time before his death in 2007 — gave away more than $1 million.
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