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Onyx reviews: 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman by Adam Plantinga

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 12/08/2014

Most police officers who've been on the job for a decade or more could probably come up with 400 observations about their daily lives, but it helps a great deal that Adam Plantinga is a good writer and that he has a sense of humor.

He divides his anecdotes into sections: Things Cops Know About Thugs and Liars, Things Cops Know about Chases, etc., closing with the longest part, 54 Things Cops Know About Being On the Job. Some of his "things" consist of a single, pithy sentence, whereas the longest go on for the better part of a page. Some reveal a man who has seen it all, and perhaps a little too much. His humor can be a little perverse at the time, the jaded jokes of a man who has been around dead bodies, hookers, stupid crooks, and cops who take shortcuts. Still, he has a keen sense of his place in the world, and what that place can be like. He's dealt, for example, with domestic violence that escalates in the presence of police because the combatants feels safe to say some of the things they never would have said otherwise. He's heard cops say insensitive things in the presence of the families of murder victims.

Plantinga is now a sergeant, but he spent over a dozen years on police forces in Milwaukee and San Francisco. He also has a degree in English, has published one short story and is the author of several non-fiction articles about police work for a literary journal. It shows. His vocabulary and his sense of how to tell a good—albeit brief—story shine through. Occasionally, his world-weariness does, too, revealing how a person can be worn down by stupidity and maliciousness. However, he isn't entirely pessimistic; sometimes he sees people do their best in bad situations, which gives him hope.

If you've ever watched episodes of Cops, the setting for many of these stories will seem familiar. This isn't the refined, elevated police work of crime dramas featuring elite divisions like the Major Case Squad or the Special Victims Unit, where none of the cops spend a major chunk of their shifts filling out reports. Plantinga's case studies involve stolen cars, high speed chases, drunk drivers, prostitutes and johns, shoplifters, gangs and juvenile offenders. May of his snippets debunk things that are shown on cop shows: when warrants are needed, the stupid things criminals do that trip them up, and the pointlessness in shooting at a moving vehicle in an attempt to stop it.

He discusses what it's like to be shot, zapped with a Tazer and pepper sprayed (given a choice, he'd rather be shot than maced). He explains the choices a cop faces when confronted with a violent offender, and the many ways an officer can be injured on the job. He explains why a cop doesn't put everything into a foot chase with a suspect: the officer has to have some energy left to do battle with the perp if he catches him. He talks about the thought process that goes into deciding whether or not to arrest someone and how profiling makes sense in certain situations. He explains how some types of arrests are so onerous in terms of paperwork and follow-up that some officers adopt a catch-and-release philosophy. 

As well as being an entertaining look at the daily lives of the men in blue, this book is an excellent resource for crime writers. It's endorsed by Joseph Wambaugh, a man well known for "getting it right" when it comes to describing the workings of the police department. It's chock full of the kind of insider details someone could only get by going on ride-alongs for weeks or more. Many of his observations are laugh-out-loud funny and others will make readers sit back and wonder about the state of the world. Given the recent focus on the behavior of certain police officers in America, this book provides a savvy insider's look at the other side of the story.

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