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The Storyteller: Joseph Wambaugh

Thirty-five years ago Joseph Wambaugh forever changed the way that cops are portrayed in fiction. Now after a long hiatus, he's writing again about the "Blue Knights" of the LAPD.

October 01, 2007  |  by - Also by this author

Few artists have done more to change the way that cops are portrayed in popular culture than best-selling author Joseph Wambaugh. While Jack Webb's Joe Friday was all about the facts, ma'am, Wambaugh's cop characters were and are all about the heart and soul. They are human and their profession takes a toll on them as individuals.

Wambaugh understands the cop experience very well. For 14 years starting in 1960, he carried the badge of the Los Angeles Police Department. It was a career that he dearly loved but one that was cut short by the notoriety he gained as the author of such riveting best-selling titles as "The New Centurions," "The Blue Knight," and "The Onion Field."

All of those great books were published from 1971 to 1973, and they made Wambaugh so famous that there was no way he could stay on the job. "I was going on Johnny Carson in the evening and then working the next day. It was just disruptive to the office, it was disruptive to me, and it was just impossible," he explains. "People would call Hollenbeck and make up some phony crime asking for me by name to come out and deal with it."

Since pulling the pin on his police career in 1974, Wambaugh has published 13 more books of fiction and non-fiction. In addition, he helped create the modern television drama with his innovative work on "Police Story," a show that used a revolving cast to tell stories about the job and the men and women who do it.

Most of Wambaugh's early work was rooted in his experience on the LAPD and energized with his love of the department. But about the time of the second Reagan administration, he moved on, pursuing police and crime stories literally worldwide. His 1989 best-seller, "The Blooding: The True Story of the Narborough Village Murders," was set in the United Kingdom. It dealt with the use of DNA evidence in a criminal investigation and helped popularize the technique.

Last year, for the first time in more than 20 years, Wambaugh published a book about the LAPD. The best-seller "Hollywood Station" marks a return to his roots. But he has returned to find a different LAPD culture and a different street culture than the ones he chronicled in "The New Centurions" and "The Choirboys."

"Hollywood Station" is a story of police officers under siege by a politically correct administration, a city that would rather they not do their jobs, and rampant street crime committed by gangs and tweakers. The soul of the book is a sage old watch sergeant known as "The Oracle" to his troops. And perhaps more than any other character in his work, The Oracle speaks for Wambaugh, dispensing his take on what draws men and women to the badge and giving advice to younger officers.

Associate Editor Dean Scoville recently spoke at length with Wambaugh about his law enforcement career, his books, and the state of contemporary police culture.

POLICE: You spent 14 years with the LAPD before retiring as a Detective Sergeant. Do you miss the job?

JW: I still dream about it all the time. Some nights I dream that I'm going back to the job.

POLICE: In your dream, do you work your era, or is it today?

JW: It's today, but my uniform is a bit dated. In my dream, I'm always going to go down and buy a new Sam Browne. I also try to figure out how to work the 9mm Beretta instead of my old wheel gun.

POLICE: What was your most memorable moment as an officer?

JW: My most memorable moment was at the corner of Manchester and Vermont when the first shots were fired in the Watts Riot. I just happened to be one of a dozen or so cops that were at that intersection, which was mobbed by maybe 1,000 or 1,500 people, and they were just starting to surge through windows. I don't know if it was cops or rioters, but then there were a lot of shots fired. That was memorable.

POLICE: You've been quoted as saying that doing the research of non-fiction gives you the pleasure of being a detective again. But you also said that doing "The Onion Field" made you a real writer. That when you finished that book you knew you couldn't be a cop again. Which did you enjoy more: being a cop or being a writer?

JW: Probably being a writer because I guess I was born to be a writer. I suppose it's not something you can really learn. You can learn some fundamentals, but I think it comes from DNA and from reading books all of one's life.

It was in my genes to write; it probably wasn't in my genes to be a cop. Writing is something I do all alone, and it gives me a feeling of great satisfaction and allows me to be creative.

POLICE: What was your proudest or most memorable moment as a writer?

JW: Probably having my first book accepted. Not that I thought it would be a hit or anything, but just to know it was going to be published. That is probably the most thrilling moment of any writer's life, when your first piece of work is finally going to be published. It's pretty hard to duplicate that moment.

Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

David Moore S-55 @ 11/22/2007 6:30 PM

First, I have always been a big fan of (Joseph Wambaugh) as he writes from the heart - like many of your articles and Police seems to be going in that direction as well, within the channels program...(The best ones with impact/meaning/lessons to remember and use)!!

These stand out to me; "They are human and their profession takes a toll on them as individuals (Police Officers/Law Enforcement, military, as it will always affect people who care about others and are trying their best to make a difference in our world each day)." Also the last three paragraphs of this article, I won't lie had some mist from within well-up!

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