A program that has tripled in size since 2016 gave Christmas cheer to motorists Friday as Center Police Chief David Ray handed out gas cards in place of tickets as part of the department's "Santa, not Summonses" program.
Ray said the program started when he flipped the television on one morning in December 2016 to find "several police-involved stories that were not projecting police officers in a good light."
So he made a plan with his wife, Tracy, to purchase a couple gift cards for local businesses to give to motorists during the holiday season. The effort quickly snowballed. In 2016, local businesses added donations for an additional gift card, and "Santa, not Summonses" doubled donations the following year.
For 2018, Ray received an outpouring of support from almost every local business and an anonymous donor tripled the amount of donations from the 2016 event.
Ray increased last year's gift certificates from $20 to $50, purchasing gas cards from Abel's Shell in New London. He said he enjoys the chance to surprise motorists with a Christmas gift who may initially expect a speeding ticket. Each envelope includes a letter from the Center Police Department with a message that reads "You have been chosen to receive a bit of Christmas cheer supplied from city of Center businesses and citizens instead of a being issued a summons for your traffic violation this day."
Ray stressed most of the people he stopped would normally receive an expensive traffic ticket, but the Christmas surprise helps to boost positive relationships between members of the general public and law enforcement officials.
"They get the positive — instead of coming out with the negative of the summons fine — they're going to come out with the positive of keeping the money from the fine and a gift card."
This year, Ray partnered with the Missouri Coalition for Highway Safety to share pamphlets about the dangers of distracted driving, driving while intoxicated and youth alcohol use. He said the reminders could help spark family conversations about safety.
"If that information from those pamphlets stops one single person from getting hurt, or God forbid, killed this holiday season, it's entirely worth it," he said.
Ray parked his pursuit vehicle near the fifth speed limit sign in Center that reads 35 mph. Within a couple minutes, a motorist passed by at 18 mph over the speed limit — which would have normally resulted in a $99 ticket. She smiled at Ray when she realized what was in the envelope along with a written warning for speeding.
Just after that, Ray stopped Danette Henderson. She smiled and wished him a merry Christmas when he handed her the envelope.
"It's a pleasant surprise to get the gift card — definitely unexpected, for sure," she said.
Ray said that some people have the misconception traffic stops automatically mean they will receive a speeding ticket, but the purpose is to remind people to slow down and drive safely by paying attention to traffic signs and their surroundings.
Ray drove to the home of Hank Abell, a well-known Elvis Presley impersonator who performs songs for free across the area. Ray had a card ready for Abell to thank him for his service.
In addition to the anonymous donor, support for this year's event came from Ralls County Commissioner John Lake, Lake's Automotive, McDonald and Sons Stone Company, Dr. and Mrs. David Tucker, Yes Way Convenience Store, Center Locker, Crossroads Bar and Grill Cody Hees at The Repair Shop, Chief Ray and his family and Liter Fertilizer and Chemical.
As the "Santa, not Summonses" program continues to grow, Ray said he hopes his effort will "spread goodwill from police far beyond" the city of Center and foster more positive accounts from citizens about their interactions with law enforcement officials.
Ray said he feels good handing out the gifts each year. "It's the spirit in how it's given, it's not how it's received," he said.