The birthday forecast in North Port, Fla., was looking grim.
Daniel Nicastro, who has been diagnosed with autism, was turning 8, but responses to his birthday party invitations had been lackluster, WFLA News Channel 8 reported. Actually, they had been nonexistent.
"His father and I remembered the past two years of no one showing up for his birthday parties, he would spend the day crying that he had no friends," Daniel's mother, Carolyn Nicastro, wrote in a note posted to Facebook. "We could not let that happen again."
After the invites yielded no response, and with the birthday coming closer, his parents sent an invite to the police, hoping one of the North Port officers – who young Daniel regarded as "superheroes" – would stop by.
A whole group of police showed up, bearing gifts and ready to party. The resulting photo has gone viral on social media, with more than 1,300 shares from the North Port Police Department.
"(We wanted) to make that boy's day, spread good cheer; let him know that he is appreciated, that we did want to attend," North Port Police Sgt. Paul Neugebauer told WFLA. "Children with challenges and such don't need to feel left out more than they already are. So if he views us as superheroes, the least thing we can do is show up at his party and make his day."
Daniel told WFLA News police are always his "favorite characters," and can be counted on to "stop robbers" and save people.
Not every child views the police as superheroes, and stories of police misdoings and tension, especially with minority communities, often engender mistrust of law enforcement around the country. Police say these small but poignant opportunities for service highlight their values and draw attention to the good work done by a majority of cops.
"I don't think it's us versus them," Atlanta Police Department beat cop Barricia McCormick told The Christian Science Monitor last year. "I like knowing that on some level you're making a difference in someone's life."
Sometimes these acts of compassion arise spontaneously. In December, a story surfaced of an officer called to a New Hampshire supermarket over shoplifting. Upon investigation, he discovered that a mother had stolen a cake mix, Crisco, and frosting to make a birthday cake for her child. The officer didn't issue a citation. Instead, he paid for the items out of his own pocket.
"I didn't do it for the attention," Officer Michael Kotsonis told the Portsmouth Herald. "What you do when no one is looking, that's the character of someone."
In Daniel's case, the police attention widened his social circle. He received birthday greetings from around the country, and the news coverage of his party with police led to a Facebook thread of local parents connecting their children for playdates, including several invitations for Daniel.
Daniel's story also sparked a discussion among parents with children whose challenges make friendships difficult. Local police are going beyond his birthday party by "activating the bat signal over North Port" to plan a bigger party on July 3 for Daniel and any of the area's children who have experienced a birthday without friends.