Adam Plantinga, cop and author, analyzes and defends ‘Police Craft’ in new book
By Lou Fancher
The unexpected success of writer and San Francisco Police Department sergeant Adam Plantinga’s first book, “400 Things Cops Know,” leaves him remarking with self-deprecating humor, “I knew my mom would buy a bunch. Everything else was a surprise.” The Wall Street Journal dubbed the book, “the new bible for crime writers,” with authors such as Lee Child and Joseph Wambaugh weighing in on it. With more than 30,000 sold, Plantinga jokes that all but a few “were likely purchased by relatives.”
Even so, the East Bay author moves beyond the “400 Things” bullet list format to write with increased confidence the short essays that make up his new book, “Police Craft; What Cops Know About Crime, Community and Violence” (Quill Driver Books, $16.95,237 pages). Twenty-one chapters cover law enforcement’s most volatile topics, including use of force, special operations, death and dying, racial profiling, police and street culture, interrogation techniques, the collection and preservation of evidence and more.
Plantinga has a richly varied background: undergraduate degrees in English and criminology/law from Marquette University, three years with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Houston, employment as a Milwaukee patrol officer for seven years and, after moving to the Bay Area in 2008, as a sergeant on felony investigation teams in San Francisco’s Bayview, Southern (SoMa) and Mission Station police departments. He and his wife are parents of two daughters under age 10.
“I felt I had more to say,” Plantinga says about his second literary venture. “I wanted to unpack things from the first book. I wanted to acknowledge my colleagues, so I sat down with experts in the canine unit, CSI, the bomb squad. One thing I had feedback on about ‘400 Things’ was that I’d steered clear of racial issues.” Well aware that the public might not want to hear about racial profiling from “a white guy from Grand Rapids, Michigan,” Plantinga ultimately decided police perspective on community relations was fraught, but worthwhile territory.
Writing that “there’s no perfect calculus for the police use of force,” Plantinga, as he does several times throughout the book, strikes two-sided tones. As a sergeant, he’s a step removed from the street and thinks not only of doing the job, but of policing’s complexities. Addressing increased community pushback against police oversteps—a pivot he accepts as necessary and attributes to ubiquitous cell phone videos—he supports more transparency, stringent hiring and training practices, increased community involvement and mandatory use of body cameras. But simultaneously—and of paramount importance—Plantinga suggests extreme actions like an officer biting the nose of a “berserker drug addict” might be necessary and defensible: “He threw this party. All you did was show up.” An overreaction might prompt a citizen complaint. “Underreact and maybe you’re all kinds of dead,” he writes.
Plantinga believes body cameras make cops accountable and more polite. Footage of officer-involved shootings is vital for juries, district attorneys, judges and citizens, but also for sergeants seeking to understand why a cop is in trouble or another cop excels. Encountering in one typical day during chaotic circumstances CEOs who’ve had their businesses burglarized, drug-addicted prostitutes, sexual assault victims and people whose race or ethnicity vary widely, he says, “You want an officer who’s fair-minded, able to work with folks who are transgender, gang members, doing well or in miserable financial situations – all walks of life.”
If a department is operating correctly in terms of gender equality, he says, “if you look and see a female, your first thought is police officer, not female. That’s the way it should be. She’s there for the same reason as male counterparts: a job outside an office, belief in right and wrong, a steady city job.”
About gun control, he says, “There are reasonable people and arguments on both sides. My take might not be shared with the majority of cops. If assault rifles were limited to two to three bullets in one magazine, like for duck hunters, that I’d support. But even if guns disappeared, if someone wants to kill folks, they’re going to use bombs, stab them, run them over with vehicles. Law enforcement (officers) need to know they can take the gun of a felon, mentally ill person, someone in a domestic violence call. Knowledge to go at it is most important because consequences are so high.”
In an ask/tell/order/make world, police officers are being trained to de-escalate. “Cops are hardwired to rush in, but time and distance are best. You allow the person with mental health issues to pace around while you get his story. If it takes all day to get the person with a knife in custody, it takes all day.”
Strikingly, being an investigative cop is terrific training for a writer. Close observation, attention to details or human motivations and—surprise—writing incident reports is a crossover skill. “You experience strong emotions: anger, fear, frustration, elation. I’d sit down after an intense day and think, “How do I put that into words?” You have a broad palette to draw from. Writing homicide scene reports requires creating order out of chaos.”
Although he’s not thinking about retirement, Plantinga battles daily cynicism. Constant exposure to toxic situations, inadequate social systems like homeless services that fail to provide long-lasting solutions, a body that complains longer and louder after kicking down a door or chasing a suspect—all take their toll. Nonetheless, he says, “I still enjoy it. If I’m dragging myself out the door, loathing the work life, I’ll have to recalculate.”
Finding satisfaction in writing about cops, Plantinga says, “These and future books aren’t all about me. Stories about cops who are honest, nice, just go about doing their jobs—aren’t often told. I get to sing their praises. I think more writing is part of my future.”