In hosting the annual Santa Cop event, which has been providing gifts to Tustin families for more than 30 years, the Tustin Police Department needed to ensure everyone’s safety while still making sure the kiddos were sent home happy.
So instead of holding the event indoors as usual, the Tustin Police Department Community Relations team turned Santa Cop into a drive-through experience for the families.
“With the pandemic, the safety of our community is paramount,” said Lt. Ryan Coe, who oversees the Community Relations Unit. “We have a long-standing tradition of serving our community throughout the holidays. So we said, ‘OK, we’re not going to cancel, but let’s come up with some ideas on how we can safely serve the communities.’”
Sgt. Sarah Fetterling, Community Relations Unit supervisor, tasked Police Services Officers Zhanna Ismailov and Jen Dlugitch with the planning of this year’s Santa Cop.
The pair came up with the idea of turning the Tustin Police Department parking lot into a makeshift North Pole, complete with wrapped presents and Santa and Mrs. Claus greeting vehicles as they cruised slowly through.
A station was set up where vehicles could stop to pick up their bag of presents.
Hot chocolate was offered at another station with K9 Azzurri, donning a Santa hat, on hand to greet families.
Providing a festive and memorable opportunity for the families was “super important,” even with the pandemic, Dlugitch said.
“I don’t want to have any events canceled due to COVID-19,” she said. “I still want to be there for these families.”
The invited families were referred by schools, local churches, the Tustin Family and Youth Center, and by the officers themselves.
Families were given staggered time slots on when they should show up to receive their gifts.
“The families who are able to participate make this event what it is,” Ismailov said. “To be able to be with them and have them participate means so much to us.”
Santa Cop has grown exponentially since the event started 31 years ago with 13 families being served punch and cookies.
Over the years, more families were invited and the celebration included dinner, gifts and photo-ops with Santa.
This year, the Tustin Police Department served 88 children and their families.
“It was pretty cool to see them be creative and really overcome the hurdles of what we had to do because of COVID-19, but still put this on because it is so important for these kids in this community,” Fetterling said. “They really did some outside-the-box thinking. This parking lot came alive with what they’ve done with it. I think it is still a great experience for these kids. They came up with a great event.”