Fact vs. Fiction in police work — a sergeant speaks

Today, we welcome Adam Plantinga to the blog to share a few tips about the reality of police work. A sergeant with the San Francisco Police Department, Adam is the author of 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman, published today by Quill Driver Books. He’ll make you laugh, but he’ll also make you smarter. Read on.

400 Things Cops Know CoverPlaywright Arthur Miller once said drama is a compressing of time. You need to make a lot of things happen in a short span. That’s why you skip the slow stuff to keep the audience engaged. So if cop shows, books, and movies aren’t very realistic, it’s okay, because that’s just how narrative best functions. But you still want to craft a work that rings true when it counts. It’s a bit of a balancing act. To aid in this endeavor, I have listed examples below to keep in mind if you are writing a police-related novel or screenplay and wish to sound reasonably authentic.

1.  Fiction: Even the most willowy of cops kicks down the suspect’s door in a single blow.

Reality: Doors, especially exterior ones, can be onerous to take down. Once it took me twenty-seven tries. I know this because there was a sergeant next to me counting out loud encouragingly. And the most effective means of entry isn’t the manly snap kick where you face the door with your shoulders squared, but rather the ungainly mule kick, where your back is to the door and you lash out with your foot like Eeyore.

2.  Fiction: The male cops are ruggedly handsome and frequently shirtless, with toned, tan physiques. The female officers have shimmering hair with a lot of bounce to it and commendable skin.

Reality: We are not as gorgeous or dynamic as our fictional counterparts. Some cops look like they’ve been hit in the face with a crowbar. (Some, have, in fact, been hit in the face with a crowbar. It’s that kind of job.) If cops looked like models, believe me, we’d be models. That gig would beat sprinting down some dirty alley after a knife-wielding meth addict any day.

3.  Fiction: Local law enforcement has just started investigating the big case when the feds swoop in with their trench coats and sunglasses. One of the feds says, “We’re taking over.” A bitter argument about jurisdiction ensues.

Reality: If the feds show, you probably have a massive migraine of a crime scene on your hands that involves something you don’t deal with much (a train derailment, a nasty hazardous materials situation, a multi-state crime spree). So if some three letter agency offers to be on point, your reaction is likely going to be Thank the Lord. The FBI really wants this mess? It’s all theirs. Maybe you can still make your daughter’s piano recital after all.

4.  Fiction: The hero cop shoots a few bank robbers in the afternoon, and returns to work the next morning full duty as some police colleague comments, “Nice work yesterday.”

Reality: If you are in an officer-involved shooting, you are immediately placed on administrative duty pending the completion of the investigation. There’s also mandatory counseling involved. Police shootings are relatively rare and a very big deal. They are treated as such.

5. Fiction: Plainclothes cops or detectives in suits walk around in public with their guns out but no visible form of police identification.

Reality: You are required to have your badge/ID out if your firearm is showing. How are civilians supposed to know you’re a cop as opposed to just some nutjob walking around with a firearm? Even other police officers may not know who you are, especially on larger departments. Is everyone just supposed to intuit you’re the police because you have that shimmering hair with a lot of bounce to it?

6.  Fiction: The two detectives interrogate the suspect and cut right to the chase. After a few minutes, the suspect breaks down and gives a full confession.

Reality: Interrogations start with rapport-building. You want to find out something about the suspect first. Where he grew up, which school he went to, if he has siblings. You usually don’t even touch on the crime at hand until you’ve gotten him comfortable talking to you. Then there’s bathroom breaks.  Maybe even a proffered fast food meal. The whole process can take hours. Usually the only people who confess within a few minutes are juveniles.

7.  Fiction: The police protagonist knowingly enters an incredibly dangerous situation alone, often muttering, “There’s no time for backup.” He also is equipped with a flashlight that only seems capable of illuminating the first three feet in front of him.

Reality: There’s almost always time for backup. If there’s one suspect, at least two to three cops will respond. Two suspects? No fewer than four. Three or more bad guys? The whole shift is showing up. Police aren’t superheroes. You succeed because you use training, tactics, and superior numbers.

Also, our flashlights work just fine.

Adam PlantingaAdam Plantinga is a sergeant on the San Francisco Police Department and the author of the just-released book 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, local booksellers, and from the publisher, Quill Driver Books

24 thoughts on “Fact vs. Fiction in police work — a sergeant speaks

  1. Great post, Adam and Leslie! Good information and delivered with humor, so it was extra effective. (Oops, am I writing a review?) Based on those two things, I’m happy to share in my sharing places and buy the book. Best of luck with it!

  2. Great post, Adam (and Leslie). I just finished Kate Flora’s latest Joe Burgess mystery, AND GRANT YOU PEACE, and I’m happy to say she gets all those details correct with her fictional Maine police officers.

    Question: a murder victim is accused after the fact of blackmail. Can the investigators have access to her bank records? Do they need a search warrant? Does this vary state by state? This fictional case is in southern Indiana.

    Thanks! Will share this post around.

    • Edith,
      That’s a great question and Leslie may be able to answer it better than me. But I had an idea how that might go and just confirmed with a friend of mine who works Homicide in San Francisco. The answer is a strong Most Likely. Dead people don’t have standing to the items on their person, (wallets, phones, etc.) which the police can go through at will. But bank records are a bit different. There might be other people who have a vested interest in the records, like heirs and/or spouses so banks can be protective of these documents and typically require a warrant, at least in our neck of the woods. Not sure how it goes in Indiana. What you may want to do is simply call up a major bank in Indiana, ask to speak to a manager and ask him/her what their procedures are for releasing bank records of the deceased. If you tell them you’re a writer doing some research, they may very well get a kick out of that and tell you all you need to know. Maybe more than you need to know. And you’ll have your answer.
      Hope that helps,

      • Excellent reply that covers all the bases. This is a situation where the PD would likely consult with the prosecutor, who tend to want to err on the side of getting a warrant, to avoid the risk of evidence getting tossed as fruit of an illegal search. Bankers being risk averse, they are especially likely to want a warrant — esp if, as Adam suggests, the account is a shared one. The warrant protects the bank from claims of violating privacy rights. I like his suggestion of calling an Indiana banker, too. You know how people love to help writers!

      • Thanks so much, Adam. Will call Indiana tomorrow. I have not had great luck cold calling places like that (and I’m in Massachusetts), but I’ll give it try! Am off to order your book now, too.

  3. What a great post, and the book looks fantastic, too. Off to order. Thanks, Leslie. Nice to meet you Sergeant Plantinga. Question: Does your book address anything about field training officers? Best wishes.

    • Hi Donnell. Thanks for the kind words. I was a field training officer and the book addresses field training but in a bit of a roundabout way in that it talks about what it’s like to be a new police officer. Which is pretty hard, by the way. You don’t really know what you’re doing out there until you have about 5 years of street time under your belt. Before that, you’re just treading water.

  4. Great post, Adam. I purchased your book and it just arrived in the mail. Can’t wait to start reading it. Wishing you many sales.

  5. Love your sense of humor, Adam! You remind me of a character of mine 🙂 This post came at the perfect time as I plan my next suspense series set in San Francisco (one of my favorite cities in the world!) Your book is a welcome addition to my bookshelf. Thanks for the post, Leslie.

    Question: If a crime gang were using Alcatraz as a pick up point for contraband, what is the deepest, darkest, most inaccessible and unlikely place on the island to hide it?

    All the best with sales and stay safe on the job 🙂

    • Wow, that’s a solid idea. SFPD doesn’t actually patrol Alcatraz, as it is the property of the U.S. federal government and handled by the National Park Service. So while I’ve been to Alcatraz as a tourist, I don’t have any inside scoop on where might be the best place to hide something. But because the average reader wouldn’t know that either, I think you could take quite a few liberties here and just make something up and run with it. Good luck!

  6. Thanks everybody, for the generous comments. The book was a lot of fun to write. I’ve had good teachers on the job that I’ve learned from, and much of the book is made up of their wisdom that I’ve simply pilfered. But that’s one of the cool things about police work. There’s a deep reservoir of collective, often hard-fought knowledge there that you can tap into and then pass on to others.

  7. Thanks for the post. I esp appreciated #3 as that’s how I’ve characterized what happens between my Sheriff protagonist and an FBI agent sent to help with an investigation. Nice to be validated!

    Will look for your book and request a copy for our library if possible.

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