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Calif. officer battles crime with his films

By Sean Webby   
Mercury News

The filmography of Frank Swaringen crawls with maniacal meth addicts, born-to-lose prison inmates and preppy pedophiles lurking like wolves around the schoolyard.

His scripts seep nightmarish drug hallucinations, death and rape. He often plays the bad guys himself, delving deep into Method acting to authentically portray the motives of ``Anthony the Rapist'' and other psychotic characters. But Swaringen's plots are not strictly for goose bumps -- he wants to protect and serve.

The veteran San Jose police officer has made about a dozen award-winning short films and public service announcements. In ``And I'm A Rapist'' (1990), a malevolently grinning Swaringen asks, ``Is this a face you can trust, or what?'' Another film, ``With a Little Luck'' (1991), teaches correctional officers how to survive being taken hostage by violent prisoners.

Last month, Swaringen won an award from a Silicon Valley group for his most ambitious film, ``Milk Cartons'' (1997), which teaches kids how to protect themselves from pedophiles. Now he's trying to raise enough money to make ``Where Sheep Gather'' -- a film for teenagers about sex predators who lurk online.

Compared with the recent scandal over offensive homemade police videos in San Francisco, Swaringen's reputation as a local filmmaker glows, according to his superiors and advocates for crime victims in Santa Clara County.

After 14 years in the San Jose Police Department working as everything from an undercover narcotics officer to a detective in the sex assault unit, Swaringen was promoted to sergeant Friday.

``His passion in trying to protect children exemplifies the type of officer he is,'' Assistant Police Chief ``Tuck'' Younis said. ``It's one of the primary reasons he was promoted.''

Swaringen said his love of movies and police work comes from the same places.

``As a cop, I enjoy the adrenaline and I love the thought that I can prevent a crime before it happens,'' he said. ``With movies, I try to make something that strikes a balance between entertainment and education.''

Swaringen first saw California from the tinted window of a Greyhound bus as a star-struck 19-year-old determined to become a movie star.

Exhausted and depressed from the long ride, Swaringen was having serious second thoughts when he stumbled out of the bus into the gritty downtown of San Jose, en route to Los Angeles. Where are the blond beach bunnies, he wondered.

Faced with the last highly uncertain leg of his cross-country trip, Swaringen settled down in San Jose at a friend's house. He took acting lessons and had started getting a few community theater parts -- even Shakespeare -- when he was in a bad motorcycle accident.

While recuperating, Swaringen decided he had given acting his best shot and that it was time to pursue his other longtime dream. He would be a cop, following the path of his uncle, who had been an officer in New York City.

Cops and movies
Swaringen joined the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department in 1985. And soon he was combining his two loves -- he wrote and produced a movie about how officers should deal with people on PCP. He played the guy on PCP who goes berserk and then gives a cautionary monologue with blood smeared all over his face. A co-actor, Deputy Kevin Mank, fought back so realistically it took days for Swaringen to recover.

Law enforcement liked the gritty training flicks. He kept filming.

While researching the role of a rapist, Swaringen flew to New York City and interviewed dozens of sex offenders in the ``Tombs'' and Rikers Island jails. What the offenders said haunted Swaringen: ``I love children, but my need to have sex with them is stronger,'' one admitted. ``I'm a hunter,'' another said. ``I don't hunt deer or elk. I hunt children.''

His next movie would be about child safety, Swaringen vowed.

In 1992, he transferred to the San Jose Police Department, encouraged by then-Chief Lou Cobarruviaz, who liked his training movies. The new force encouraged him to look for other projects.

Missing children
For ``Milk Cartons: The Way Back Home'' -- written with his wife, Collette -- Swaringen managed to pull together a bigger budget of about $200,000.

The film -- starring actors from well-known shows such as ``Silver Spoons'' and ``Home Improvement'' -- follows a boy who is cynical about safety into a dreamlike alternate universe of missing children, where he barely escapes a kidnapping with the help of a mystical cop.

Two years ago, a 12-year-old girl at Summerdale Elementary School who had just seen ``Milk Cartons'' managed to get away from a man who tried to coax her into his car. She told her teacher, and police arrested the man.

``He just really cares so much about kids and what is happening to them out there and wants to make a difference to keep them safe,'' said Marcia Slacke, director of Childquest, the Campbell non-profit that distributes ``Milk Cartons'' to schools in such far-flung places as Alberta, Canada. ``He's a wannabe movie star. But as an officer, his leadership and level of excellence go way beyond his normal duties.''

Swaringen -- who also created a child safety class that he has taught locally for years -- has no biological children of his own. He is helping to raise his wife's teenage grandchild, whom Swaringen considers his son.

``Every time I see on the news that a child is abducted, I cringe,'' Swaringen said. ``But I can say to myself that I've done something -- something -- to make those numbers a little smaller.''

 San Jose Mercury News (http://www.mercurynews.com/)

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