On November 22, millions of Americans will begin their Thanksgiving meal with a prayer of gratitude. How many of them will be mentioning police officers in those prayers?

An honest answer would probably be “not many.” Americans tend to think about their brothers and sisters in law enforcement only when police services are needed. (And let’s not forget the unseen dispatchers who have to know what to do in any emergency, get the details right so that first responders can respond swiftly, maintain control of the situation—and then do it all over again for the next caller.) As crime rates continue to decline, the hard work that got America there is often overlooked and unappreciated.

Still, many families will be thinking about a police officer on Thanksgiving Day—an absent one. There will be many empty chairs as turkey is carved and slices of pumpkin pie are passed around. Some officers will be working holiday shifts; others—109 of them, to be precise—died in the line of duty this year as the result of gunfire, automobile accidents, stabbings, and other risks that come with the job.

Although most officers will survive to fight crime another year, there are other prices to be paid. Job-related stress causes health problems—many of them serious—and can wreck families and friendships. Many officers are depressed and lonely, feeling that no one understands the challenges and risks they face daily.

Other pressures come from society at large. The enormous US federal deficit has raised the ire of many taxpayers, and sometimes police officers are the target. At a June 8 campaign stop in Iowa, candidate Mitt Romney criticized President Obama for wanting to hire more firefighters, police officers, and teachers. “It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people,” he said. How did police evolve from vital public servants who save lives into unnecessary government workers who drain public funds?

In some localities, taxpayer gripes are affecting law enforcement in a very personal way. Numerous officers have been told not to expect the pensions they were once promised (and, in many cases, partially funded themselves by accepting lower salaries and signing up for paycheck deductions).

Perhaps this Thanksgiving will be different, however. America is realizing that police in the Northeast US, assisted by volunteers from across the country, saved countless lives from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. For example, over 1100 people were rescued when fast-rising floodwaters on Staten Island in New York threatened their homes.

Paul Browne, chief police spokesman, had high praise for the police officers—themselves victims of the hurricane, with their own homes and families to worry about. “Many risked their lives to make rescues,” Browne said. “There were transformers exploding and the danger of live wires in the water.”

It was a proud achievement for the officers—but it also raises some uncomfortable questions. Why did so many victims refuse to obey evacuation orders? Was this yet another case of Americans taking police for granted—assuming that rescuers would be coming if they were needed?

But this week is a time to think about giving thanks, not hurricanes and taxes. Do police officers have any reasons for gratitude this year? Yes, of course. Law enforcement is a career with a long record of courage, dedication, professionalism, and public service—often at great personal cost. Lives are saved, property is protected, wrongs are righted, and more often than not, life returns to its normal course after an emergency. Not every story has a happy ending, of course—but many of them do. There are more reasons than ever before to take pride in wearing a police uniform.

You are one of a very small and special group that makes those things happen every day. Thank you for your service, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.