Bill Palmini of Novato
Photo by Tim Porter
If you’ve lived in the Bay Area for more than a few decades, it’s likely you’ve seen the “King of Traffic Safety,” aka police officer Bill Palmini, on TV, on an S.F. Giants poster or perhaps in a live performance as Elvis the Cop. Palmini says that as far as he knows, he was the only Elvis impersonator ever paid by the feds to shake and shimmy. From the early ’90s, he and his team of musically minded law enforcers took their message of drug-abuse awareness and traffic safety to young audiences in schools and community centers nationwide. These days he’s chief of public safety at Hastings Law School in San Francisco and is active in the Novato Elks club. And the Elvis act? The jumpsuit “comes out at least a dozen times a year for fundraisers, state fairs or parades,” he says.
How long have you lived in Marin? I’ve lived in Novato since 1972, and before that in Mill Valley.
Do you have a favorite doughnut shop? Yes, I do. Great Donuts, located next to the post office in downtown Novato. I go every Saturday after playing basketball.
In your act do you bring up the ironic fact that Elvis died of a drug overdose? We don’t mention it. I’ve been asked this question many times by the media and my response is that we have found Elvis crossed all cultural and demographic borders, so we have used his popularity to get our message out.
If you were going to start the program today, would you still use Elvis? Absolutely; it’s what I know best and it’s been successful.
Your son does Elvis impressions. Will you be passing the baton on to him? He is a sergeant with the Pinole police and does a decent job singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” but I don’t see the baton being passed to him.
You coauthored Murder on the Rails, a true crime thriller. Any more books on the horizon? My coauthor Tanya Chalupa and I have two manuscripts awaiting a publisher: one on pedophiles, related to the Amber Swartz-Garcia case, and another about a crime I worked on in Sausalito in the ’70s involving the Mafia (Jimmy “the Weasel” Frantianno) and a heist at the Trident nightclub by boat. And I am currently doing research for a book on Marin in the Prohibition years that involves notorious bad guys like Baby Face Nelson.
Did anyone monitor the effectiveness of the Elvis outreach program? According to the CHP data, after three years in nine counties, we had a 32 percent reduction in teenage injuries/deaths that were alcohol related. Other counties in California experienced a 7 percent reduction during the same period. And we were the only show in town, no pun intended, so it’s easy to connect the decrease to our efforts. Personally, the letters I have received from students make it worth it; I’ve kept them all.
Were there any kids you connected with in particular? One of my favorites was a boy named Jermaine who had seen us perform at the Contra Costa Juvenile Hall. He then entered the cover contest (kids were asked to submit designs for our CD cover) and won, and he also recorded his own song. He ended up coming with me to the California Juvenile Conference and did a short presentation. Afterwards cops lined up to get his autograph. It was an emotional moment.
Any thoughts on reaching Marin’s youth? Here’s the deal: kids don’t want to be lectured to; you’ve got to earn their trust. Often they perceive police as (the ones) giving tickets, lecturing on safety, et cetera. They have to believe you are there for them. If you really want to make an impact you’ve got to put money and time into it and let them become ambassadors for traffic (safety) and learning; it has to be fun. In Marin there is too much talking and not enough doing. And now programs are getting cut. We cannot not invest in our youth—they are our future.