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Police Procedural: A New Book Unpacks the Most Mundane and Most Controversial Aspects of Cop Life 

Tuesday, Nov 4 2014
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The standard news cycle rarely peers into the minds of police officers, who spend more time than you might think doing paperwork and endless report filing. That's because it's the violent crimes, gunfire, and everyday thievery that make for alluring news digests, which give little room for analysis as to why the gun-wielding cops decide to shoot and swing.

SFPD Bayview Sgt. Adam Plantinga's first book, 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman, sits the average citizen down and attempts to take on the atypical task of explaining police work from behind the badge.

Sure, profiling is largely unwarranted, he says in one of his many entries, except when it isn't.

The book's observations rip through some of San Francisco's most recent and gaping wounds, including the SFPD shooting of Alejandro Nieto to the alleged profiling of D'Paris Williams in Valencia Gardens; Sgt. Plantinga explains a cop's anguish in the 0.68 seconds it takes for their finger to pull the trigger.

We talked with Plantinga to hear about life as a San Francisco cop, and his experiences that went into writing 400 Things Cops Know.

SF Weekly: So what inspired you to write about the life of a cop?

Plantinga: Well, I was a writing major in college so it's always been a hobby of mine. And for most people, their contact with police is when they have something broken into. [This is a] peek behind the curtain, to see how the whole system works.

In one of your entries, you write about citizens who ask how many people an officer has shot while on duty. Does that happen pretty often to you?

It happens all the time, whether you're out in public, or on an airplane, or in casual conversation. Before I was a cop, I probably asked people that same question. What people don't understand is if you were involved in a shooting, it's under very tragic circumstances. There's a lot of grief and gore and you may not want to talk about it at all.

When police make an arrest, people often question why officers team up to take down a single suspect. In your book, you say it's a safety issue. Could you explain that a bit?

It's to the suspect's advantage if there are a lot of police officers involved. We're trained, but we're not superhuman. We can't karate-kick guns out of people's hands.

You use tactics and teamwork.

Sometimes, if a suspect wants to resist arrest and go to jail, it can be hard to get their hands behind their back and cuff them. I've had guys who were 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds and it takes four decent [cops] to take them into custody. They weren't on drugs or anything.

Let's take some of your book entries into real life. When Alejandro Nieto was shot by officers, many asked, "Why did they shoot him 14-plus times?" Walk us through police tactics in an officer-involved shooting.

Police officers across the country are trained to aim for the upper mass, the torso, when using deadly force. It's the largest part and the easiest to hit, and you have the best chance of stopping the threat there. You're not trained to shoot to kill, but trained to shoot to stop. You have the chance to stop their actions, so the threat is neutralized.

You're not trained to shoot to disable, you're not Annie Oakley. It's the most reasonable way.

And a number of the officers shot him. Why do they all fire at once, as opposed to just one officer?

That's a complicated question and gets into the physiological effects a deadly situation causes. If you make a decision to shoot, a lot of studies think your hearing and sight are affected. You don't necessarily hear the people next to you shooting. You feel stress in the moment. You ask cops afterward how many bullets they shot, they may say two or three, but they emptied their magazine. Your senses are kind of distorted.

It's not reasonable to expect the general public to be use-of-force experts. The onus is on the police to explain why we did what we did.

The chief holds town hall meetings, usually. We should be the people explaining that.

A more controversial part of your book, I thought, was on the subject of profiling. You ask, "When did profiling become a dirty word?" Tell us what goes into assessing a possible suspect?

I think it can be tricky. The bottom line is there's a lot of calculus that goes on [when assessing someone as a suspect]. People are hiding weapons, people on the street corner drift away, why is that? Is that normal behavior for law-abiding people? People that cast backward glances at you when you're in uniform. When you start adding them together, those are the kind of things that factor into the stop.

But when the profiling depends on baggy pants and youth, innocent people get caught up in that, right? Remember the Valencia Gardens incident, with D'Paris Williams? He rode his bike on the sidewalk and was stopped by plainclothes officers for a traffic stop. The public defended him, and a brawl ensued. But they were a gun unit, and likely after guns. Is it right to stop him for a traffic stop while searching for guns?

I think one of the things that the general public does understand is: As a cop, one of your main goals is to arrest violent criminals. People have guns. That's what the public wants you to do.

How do you do it? People don't turn themselves in. You have to go get them. You might stop them for a low-grade offense like jaywalking or something like that, and you run them [to check their priors]. Or if the situation calls for it, you do a pat-down search. That's how you catch the worst criminals. They're called contextual stops. Riding a bike on the sidewalk isn't a big deal-breaker, but you do it because you're curious about the person. That's how street cops make great arrests.

But, there's a right way to make these stops and a wrong way. You don't want to treat everyone like John Dillinger. You can still have a civil conversation with people. If you just do that simple thing, be civil and explain yourself, I think it goes a long way.

As long as we're talking frankly about recent incidents, one of your entries concerns use of force. As you say, police are legally entitled to use force one step up from what they're faced with. A knife attack warrants a gun drawn. But a recent KQED report shows more than half of those killed by San Francisco police are mentally ill. How do you square that?

When people have a mental health crisis, that's one of the hardest situations to deal with as a police officer. The family will call because their family member is in crisis, an officer comes, and it's an officer-involved shooting and that's awful. You want to stay calm, and not overreact, and meet people where they are. But when someone is charging you with a knife and there's nowhere to back up, you may be forced to respond. If they're mentally ill, it's heartbreaking but they may be about to kill you.

When you have someone who is mentally ill we have people who are specially trained. We try to use them when possible, but sometimes they're not available.

In your book, you talk about a need to be respectful of the dead. Is that tough to do?

I've been at scenes [of a death] where cops say things and the family is hurt, maybe from the cop talking too loud, not realizing their voice is carrying. It can be a bad thing all around. It might be the seventh dead body that cop has seen that week, but this is [the family's] loved one.

One startling fact from your book was around retirement. You said most cops tend to die very shortly after retirement, perhaps due to the change of stress levels — but few fully understand why that happens. Does that keep you up at night?

Personally, my retirement time is a ways away. Some officers are in better shape than others. You think to yourself, when I leave this job I want to be as healthy as I can be. You try to exercise, you eat right, you spend time with your family. If you have a good family and kids and all that, it can re-energize you when you get home.

Your book mentions you spent time in Milwaukee on its police force. Is this book mostly from your experience there or in San Francisco?

A majority of it stems from my experience as a Milwaukee cop. But certainly being in S.F. brought new ideas and informed the book. But being a cop in S.F. and Milwaukee is roughly parallel.

I've been in S.F. a little over six years. I'm a relatively new sergeant, just a little over a year.

Is there anything you could point to that's different about being a cop in San Francisco from Milwaukee?

I think, generally speaking, cops in the Midwest in Milwaukee get more cooperation from citizens. And these are generalizations, but people are a bit more inclined to believe the police's version of things.

S.F. is a protest city and it gives a fair amount of push-back. And push-back is okay, we can handle that. People want to question us, that's fine, we should be in a position to answer those questions.

The relationship [with citizens] is so important to have a functioning police department. We have to work hard to get that trust. In a way it makes us better cops because we have to earn it.

It sounds tough. How does that trust manifest?

In Milwaukee, sometimes you get your car stuck in the snow. And the folks around would put on those floppy caps from Fargo and help push out your car.

I don't think folks in S.F. would be as likely to help out.

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