400 Things Cops Know
By Lou Fancher
Along the way to becoming a San Francisco police sergeant, Adam Plantinga became a thief.
Hoarding true stories of fact and fiction, swiped from fellow police officers, gang members, pimps, prostitutes, the general public and the recesses of 13 years on the force, the Lamorinda resident amassed the stolen goods in his debut book, "400 Things Cops Know" (Quick Silver Books).
It's loaded with insights, criticisms, witticisms and inside references -- like the "two-pound" rule (anything a suspect has in his/her pocket that weighs two pounds or more, be it a weapon or not, can hurt you). Plantinga will discuss these and other "street-smart lessons" of policing at Orinda Books Thursday, Oct. 9 at 7 p.m.
Arranged into 19 categories, including things cops know about chases, domestic violence, shots fired, coworkers, tactics, the use of force, and more, the book is part list and part memoir.
One account -- that the "ordeal" of filling out paperwork for a drunk-driving arrest means some officers avoid issuing DUIs. Sure, they get the drunk off the street with a less paper-intensive secondary offense or shuck the duty onto the one officer in the squad who loves to write up DUIs.
Plantinga has a take on profiling, too. Racial profiling is wrong and senseless, he insists, because criminals come in all ethnicities, ages and social strata. But criminal profiling, Plantinga says -- gleaning from the tilt of a shoulder the presence of a gun, or rolling up the sum of a backward glance and a one-handed pants hitch to smell danger -- is good police work.
Police work is also tedium (paperwork), telling complaining coworkers to button-up ("take the pain"), remembering guns can shoot underwater and using an f-bomb (blunt language) when doing so will make the difference between subduing a criminal and possibly not returning home for dinner after work.
But the book isn't all grim accounts of crimes, criminals and "confederates lurking" (a term describing the inevitably half-naked suspect found in a meth house bust). Plantinga balances the gritty, grueling work of a police officer with laughs -- at himself, for requiring 27 attempts in his first force-the-door-open experience and occasionally, at citizens, for calling 911 and demanding restorative justice because a neighbor gave them a dirty look. Firefighters take ribbing, too, mostly because they grocery shop on duty and are the main competition in Guns & Hoses charity events.
Plantinga says that growing up in Michigan, his first encounter with the police was in elementary school.
"They did stranger-danger visits, but I wasn't really that interested," he says. "In my mind, they were always off catching bank robbers."
His father was a minister and his mother a school teacher. Together, they instilled in him a "live for others" desire. Plantinga graduated with a double major from Marquette University -- English and criminology/law studies. Seeking variety, action, good stories, creating order out of chaos, a pension and opportunities to kick down doors and go after bullies, he started his law enforcement career in Milwaukee. Although police work is similar enough to give officers from all over the country instant rapport, he says San Francisco is different than the Midwest.
"There's more push-back, less community trust. You have to work harder in a city that's liberal and questions authority," he says. "And authority should be questioned."
That last comment is key to understanding the power of Plantinga's seemingly simple book. Threaded into stories of driving fast, taking down tough guys and righting wrongs, a low-key morality surfaces. Gilbert Gwinn, a mentor-figure to Plantinga, addresses even prostitutes with a respectful "young lady" or "young man." Excessive force, Plantinga writes, is the quickest way to lose community trust and should never be covered up. Finland, where he's learned drunk driving results in a sentence of a year's hard labor, he says makes United States' penalties appear "anemic." Delivered without a heavy hand and mixed with unrelenting honesty about police shortcomings, admiration for the profession is complex, but hard to resist.
"A good cop has a long fuse, can talk to a wide variety of people, knows the law, is willing to make things right and can drive fast without accidents," Plantinga says.
But they aren't Hollywood, where cops with guns run around without badges and shoulders are used to open doors.
"If there's no badge, or "police" on a windbreaker, it's just a guy or woman with a gun," he says. "No cop would do that. Plus, you use the 'mule kick,' turning your back on the door. And it sure takes more than one kick."
If he could eliminate one thing from the streets, given a choice between guns, drugs or alcohol, Plantinga chooses the guns that are behind most of the homicides he sees. Even if it means the police have to also forfeit their weapons, he says, half-joking, "It's ok. I'd use my wits to solve capers."