Sunday, January 14, 2007
Alameda County Sheriff Charlie Plummer Retires After 50 Years Of Service
Plummer ends five-decade career in law enforcement
Outspoken Alameda County sheriff started with Berkeley police in 1952
By Chris Metinko
STAFF WRITER - THE MONTCLARION
After more than 50 years in one career, it's not uncommon to think about what one would have done differently.
Monday, on his last day on the job, Alameda County Sheriff Charles Plummer had his own thoughts. After a retirement ceremony that included helicopter flyovers, bagpipes and what seemed like thousands of handshakes, the former Berkeley and Hayward chief of police sat in his office afterward and voiced that one regret.
"I wish I would have hit some people harder during the riots," said Plummer, speaking of the riots in Berkeley in the late-1960s. "I regret that."
It was a fitting answer for a man who has made a 54-year career not just out of law enforcement, but also out of speaking exactly what was on his mind -- usually using the kind of spicy language shied away from by most public officials.
Plummer, though, rarely shied away from anything during his 20-year stay as county sheriff. A blunt, shoot-from-the-hip administrator, Plummer never backed down from anyone he thought was in the wrong. That list has included other law enforcement agencies, elected officials and even former Gov. Gray Davis, whom Plummer criticized in front of a national audience on ABC's "Nightline" for going public with reports that California bridges were being targeted by terrorists.
Even his own county colleagues have felt his wrath. One year, Plummer responded to proposed cutbacks by calling an impromptu news conference where he revved up a chain saw before a stream of confused onlookers.
Others see him a different way. They regard Plummer, 76, as a kind, generous man -- he keeps a roll of $2 bills in his coat to give out to "well-behaved" children as well as those who may need a couple of dollars -- willing to go to the mat for his officers. And those same colorful words and bluntness have also gained him his share of respect from those who work with him and know him.
"This is coming from somebody who has not always voted the way he would want, but you always had to respect his honesty and transparency," said Alameda County Board of Supervisors President Keith Carson. "Government would be a lot better off today if everybody just showed their cards the way Sheriff Plummer does."
"Everybody I talk to tells me I have big shoes to fill," said the county's new sheriff, Greg Ahern. "It's such an honor to follow him. I've learned so much from him. He's already set this agency on the right path. All I have to do is continue it."
A native of Fort Bragg, on the Mendocino coast, Plummer worked as a teen in a shingle mill and as a lumberjack. One evening, hitchhiking back to Fort Bragg, a California Highway Patrol officer picked him up. The officer told Plummer he had the right build and a good personality and should become a police officer. Soon after, Plummer left Santa Rosa Junior College and took an exam to become a Berkeley police officer. He joined the force in 1952.
"I remember my first day in that Berkeley station," Plummer thought back. "There was a little violence going on in there and I thought, 'You found the place you belong.'"
Berkeley was about to become a happening place. Just as Plummer reached a supervisor's rank, protests and sit-ins became common as anger grew over the war in Vietnam. In 1969, large riots erupted and officers were hurt in street scuffles while police cars were trashed and burned with Molotov cocktails.
In an odd twist to his days at Berkeley, Plummer actually once arrested Supervisor Carson, who was a UC Berkeley student at the time taking part in demonstrations.
"It's funny, at the time you heard a lot of rumors and innuendoes about him and the Berkeley police," Carson said.
"Now, working with him and knowing him, you see it wasn't at all true. I respect him as a human being first and as a law enforcement officer second."
In late 1973, Plummer was named acting chief in Berkeley, a post he held for nine months. Two months into the job, Berkeley again became the center of media attention, as newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst was kidnapped from an apartment. He left Berkeley to become police chief in Hayward, a job he held 10 years before friends convinced him to run for sheriff.
"I said I'd do it and hired Don Perata as my campaign manager," Plummer said. "I told him if this was going to cost me anything, the job wasn't worth it."
In the end, Plummer would admit his position as sheriff was worth a lot. Plummer changed the agency's culture by bringing a high level of discipline to the department. Under Plummer, the department has become the only law enforcement agency west of the Mississippi to gain outside accreditations in five different functions -- bomb squad, health care, law enforcement, corrections and crime lab. Plummer also entered the department into lucrative law enforcement contracts, including AC Transit and BART deals.
Plummer, however, said he is most proud of his track record developing and promoting people in his department.
"When I got here, they said it was a 'good old boys network,' or a 'ring-knockers club,'" he said. "That changed. I always felt people should be judged by what they've done since they were born. I don't give a damn who your parents were or how much money you have."
On Monday, standing before many of his officers and the professional staff, Plummer said he realized how much he will miss the people most.
"I can't remember when I had a sweet day and a sad day all wrapped into one. Probably the last one has to be my wedding day," said Plummer, drawing laughs before saving himself. "I loved my wife so much, I didn't know if I could support her."
Plummer said it was thinking of his department people that made his decision to retire so hard. In the end though, Plummer said he didn't want to be in office at 80.
"I feel good right now," he said. "I know I could still go out and kick somebody's ass. But you never know what tomorrow's going to bring."
And Plummer won't exactly be riding into the sunset quietly. Instead, Plummer will work one or two days a week at the department's Office of Emergency Services in Dublin as a sort of "sheriff emeritus."
"I'm very grateful they created this job for me," Plummer said, sitting back in his new office. "I guess it's like a halfway house for me."