A Cop’s View From the Street

I ran across an interesting article in my favorite religious magazine, Christian Century. I’ll also say unusual because I don’t usually find an article about policing among my religious literature.

 In this month’s edition (March 9, 2017) Adam Plantinga, a San Francisco police sergeant and author of 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman, writes about his view — “from the street level” — about policing.

I can see from the interview that Sgt. Plantinga is a highly-educated and intelligent police officer. I sense he is able to balance the street with community values. I find that I need to hear how police officers like Plantinga see their job today.

While it has been quite a few years since I went out on the street in uniform, I want to hear what smart cops are saying. While I may disagree with some of his conclusions and observations, they are important in the necessary conversation that must occur and continue between police and community leaders.

 Plantinga graduated from Marquette University where he studied literature and criminal justice and formerly served as a field training officer for the Milwaukee Police Department. The following are topical excerpts from his interview with Christian Century’s David Heim.

 ON LOSS OF COMPASSION. “There’s a 90-10 rule in law enforcement: 90 percent of people are decent, 10 percent aren’t, and as a cop you deal with that 10 percent about 90 percent of the time… All of this has a tendency to make you skeptical and disillusioned—to distort your worldview. It’s part of what’s known as compassion fatigue, the main symptom being a vague sense of loathing for human frailty. Compassion fatigue isn’t unique to law enforcement—it affects everyone from social workers to nurses. It’s like a virus. In its most damning strain, goodness starts to look something like weakness.”

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT. “You need to recognize it and recalibrate yourself. If you have a good partner, he or she will check you when it’s called for… We need to be telling legitimate crime victims things like ‘I’m sorry this happened to you’ or ‘You seem like a strong person. You’re going to get through this.’ That’s what basic humanity requires… Your job requires you to be an objective fact finder. But there’s a way to do that without being robotic and dismissive.

“On my end, I try to eat well and exercise. I spend time among wise and good-hearted people, like Episcopalians. I steer clear of alcohol and listen to a fair amount of NPR. You need to tether yourself to something healthy and true. I did that by marrying well… [And] I have two young [delightful] daughters…”

WHY POLICING? “Police work isn’t for everyone. I came from a home that emphasized service… I was on the hunt for a real job—I wanted to kick down a door or two, protect folks who needed protecting, and go after violent felons. As an English major, I was also looking to do work where there would be some good stories. I believe I have found that.”

ON POLICE INCIDENTS. “What the police must strive for is equality under the law. If that isn’t happening, attention must be paid. But in some people’s minds, every time a white police officer has a negative encounter with a black suspect, racism is clearly afoot. To be sure, racism is threaded through every institution in our country, from mortgage lending to how kids are disciplined in school… It’s both foolish to assume a police encounter between a white cop and a black suspect is about race and foolish to assume it isn’t…

“I know the perception that police departments are staffed by irredeemable racists isn’t some anachronistic notion that materialized out of thin air… [For example] my own department’s recent texting scandal, in which multiple officers referred to blacks as monkeys and made reference to burning crosses, the tension between cops and communities of color is well documented… When accusations of police racism are well founded, those offending officers need to be aggressively rooted out in the same way you’d go after a cancer… Accusations of racism are incendiary.”

ON POLICE MISCONDUCT.  “I come to this discussion with all my own biases. My natural allegiance is to the men and women in uniform I serve with and that informs my outlook in ways that I am aware of and probably in some ways that I’m not. In terms of high-profile instances of alleged police wrongdoing, I am hesitant to point fingers.

“That being said, some of these recent cases generate such a visceral reaction that they demand a response. The Walter Scott case in North Charleston, where the officer shot Scott while Scott was running away, looked to me like a straight-up assassination. The shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa bears all the trappings of an officer tragically overreacting to a perceived threat… After watching the video from the Alton Sterling case in Baton Rouge, my main takeaway is that there were two officers in a fight for their lives as they grappled with a man armed with a handgun.

“The key factor in all of these matters is whether the officers acted reasonably given what they knew at the time. Would another officer with similar training and experience have likely done the same thing? The ‘reasonable officer’ litmus test is not a perfect barometer, but it’s the best anyone has come up with… But if Michael Brown [in Ferguson] were a large white man going after Wilson’s gun after slugging him in the face, would Wilson have just brushed it off as the misguided antics of a fellow Caucasian? That doesn’t strike me as plausible.”

WHEN UNARMED SUSPECTS DIE. “It’s worth pointing out that just because a suspect is unarmed doesn’t mean he isn’t a deadly threat. Maybe he’s looking to arm himself with your gun or use your own baton to crack open your skull. Or run you over with the car itself. The best cops are ready for those possibilities. They operate in a constant state of suspicious readiness. You are trained in the academy that you don’t give the suspect a head start. It isn’t a gentleman’s game out there. If you hesitate, you are already dead or well on your way there.

“But then you have cops making fatal miscalculations. At night, under stress, and when things move fast the way they do on the street, a wallet can look a lot like a gun. Language barriers arise; you’re telling a sweaty, fidgety driver to show his hands and instead he digs in his pocket. He knows he’s just searching for his license, but you don’t know that because you cannot read minds—in fact, you fear he’s going for a weapon because you patrol an area teeming with felons who will kill to avoid going back to jail.

“Then there are the cases, and I believe they are rare, where a life is lost because officers didn’t know how to properly use the equipment on their duty belt or they panicked or they simply made an awful decision that they can never take back. There may not have been malice involved but the damage is done. Those officers’ cases should be decided in criminal court where they are entitled to the same due process as anyone else.”

ON MIS-PERCEIVING POLICE. “Law enforcement is a volatile, highly challenging field. You have to draw on skills you have and some you’re still working on. At any given moment, you need to be a psychologist, centurion, street lawyer, pilot, coach, marksman, and soothsayer… Those who claim there’s an epidemic of police shootings would be wise to look at the actual statistics. For instance, after a five-year study of officer-involved shootings culminating in 2010, San Francisco found that about one in 10,000 arrests in the city resulted in a police-related shooting… [W]hen police are trying to take someone’s liberty away, which always brings with it the prospect of violence. And ask any street cop and she’ll tell you about a host of times she could have justifiably used deadly force but elected not to… Anytime an officer fires his weapon, it should be subject to intense scrutiny. The police are to uphold the sanctity of life whenever possible and must justify every bullet we fire. But don’t overstate the problem.”

ON POLICE REVIEW BOARDS. “I have mixed feelings. I know the community has fair doubts about whether the police can appropriately monitor themselves. But I have had personal experience with civilian review boards that simply don’t understand police procedure or criminal law and have made wrongheaded decisions as a result.”

ON TRUST OF POLICE. “Trust is everything. That’s why high-profile instances of police wrongdoing or corruption are so damaging. Without the public believing in you, without citizen cooperation, you might as well fold up shop because you aren’t going to get anywhere. Why would a citizen want to be a witness and testify in court? Or tell you which way a suspect just fled?

“You build trust in a lot of ways. It starts by getting out of your patrol car and talking with people. The neighborhood’s contact with you must be more than simply knowing you as the arresting officer. You’ve got to explain to folks why you’re doing what you’re doing. It doesn’t always work, but it’s still a worthy endeavor… The public might be wrong on some issues, or have unrealistic expectations of the department. But we have to listen to them.”

ON GUN CONTROL. “People have the right to defend themselves. They can’t always count on the police to do so. I also believe the old saw that no matter how strict you make gun laws, determined criminals will still get their hands on guns.

“But that doesn’t mean we should just throw our hands up in despair. I’m all in favor of legislation that makes the act of unlawfully killing another human being with a firearm as cumbersome as possible. I’m intrigued by smart gun technology that senses fingerprints, and I would support laws on the books that restrict the magazine capacity on assault rifles to just a few rounds—the way duck hunters in some states are allowed only three shot clips. On the seesaw between individual gun rights and public safety, I tilt toward the latter.”

ON THE JOB OF A POLICE OFFICER. “It’s a righteous job, if done right. As a cop, you’re right in the middle of the national conversation about justice and race relations, immigration and poverty. You’re part of a legitimate effort to make your community safer. Predators are locked away in state prison because you put them there through your muscle and wits and sometimes literally your own blood. There’s meaning in that… I also relish my coworkers. They are some of the toughest, funniest, smartest folks I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. They’ve taught me a lot. I salute them and everyone else who holds the line.”

You can read the entire interview HERE.


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