The Storyteller: Joseph Wambaugh

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.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

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.[PAGEBREAK]

POLICE: The labor intensive research Truman Capote did for "In Cold Blood" had a psychological impact on him. Did your months of research on "The Onion Field" have the most impact on you?

JW: Probably, it did. I was sort of living it and sweating out how the surviving officer, Karl Hettinger, would take it. Because when I interviewed him, he was so fragile. He certainly understood the kidnapping and murder of fellow officer Ian Campbell, but he didn't understand completely how that led to his overwhelming guilt complex.

Remember, this was prior to the days of anyone figuring out that police officers were perfect candidates for post-traumatic stress syndrome. In those days, there was no such term, least of all as it applied to police officers. So Hettinger didn't understand what had hit him. All he knew was that there was a period in his life when he had a bout of kleptomania and was running around stealing stupid things for no apparent reason and it all stopped the moment he was caught and punished in the worst possible way: losing his career, having to go to a job as a gardener. I knew I was dealing with a guy who was psychologically by no means recovered from all he'd gone through. I thought, if he reads this book how is he going to feel about it?

POLICE: How did he react to the book?

JW: I didn't hear from him for a couple weeks after I'd sent him the book. That really stressed me out. Finally, I had a phone call from him. I said, "Karl, I've been waiting to hear from you. Didn't you read the book right away?" He said, "Oh, yes. We were up in the High Sierras fishing with the family, so I didn't get a chance to call." I asked him how he felt about it. He said, "It didn't make me feel bad." To me, that was the greatest review that I have ever received and probably ever will receive when he said, "It didn't make me feel bad." It was the first night I was able to sleep well since I started the book.

POLICE: Onion Field cop killer Jimmy Lee Smith just passed away this year. What effect, if any, did his passing have on you?

JW: Well, nothing at all, except that he was destined to be in prison. It was inevitable that Jimmy Smith would die in prison. Every time he got out, he would shoot up a bunch of dope and go back in again. That was his life. So I didn't have any strong feeling either way.

POLICE: Would the officers you served with be able to recognize your characters as real guys they knew on the force?

JW: I think my characters are composites of different guys. Some people who read "The Choirboys" have asked me if Spermwhale Whalen wasn't over the top. I mean, he's an Air Force Reserve pilot, he flies combat missions to Vietnam, I mean c'mon, while he's still a full-time cop at Wilshire Division.

But there was one guy that I supervised at Newton Street who would string his nine days a month together so he would work 21 days straight and take nine days off together.  And then he'd go up to Edwards Air Force Base, and he'd fly a huge Globemaster airplane to Vietnam on combat pay and then come back to Newton Street at the end of the nine days and go to work. He never did make sergeant as a police officer, wasn't the type to, yet he was a major in the Air Force Reserve.

Guys in briefing would ask him where he went on his days off, and he'd say, "Oh, Da Nang is all."

Well, I took portions of his unbelievable life and I grafted it onto the character that became the character of Spermwhale Whalen in "The Choirboys."

POLICE: Your contempt for Robert Altman's adaptation of "The Choirboys" and your subsequent disassociation with the film is well known. Still, few authors this side of Grisham and King have had as many of their books adapted for the screen. Which of the films made from your books have worked best for you?

JW: That would be "The Onion Field" and "The Black Marble" because I made those films. There's also a pretty good mini-series of "Echoes in the Darkness," a true story about the murder of a school teacher. I wrote the mini-series and CBS did a darn good job because they kept it true.[PAGEBREAK]

POLICE: Are there any cop culture truisms that you've shared through your books that you subsequently regretted?

JW: No because everybody knows those things anyway. The general public knows anything about police work that you know. With all of the movies, all of the books, all of the docudramas, all of the interviews, all of the reporters out there, do you think there's anything that the general public doesn't know about police work?

People watch "The Wire" and they know more about wiretaps and surveillance than the average cop knows who's been on the job for 10 years. There aren't any big secrets out there.

The only secrets I ever revealed that the public didn't know about were the secrets of the human heart that's behind the badge. I didn't worry about doing a police procedural, telling how the cop acts on the job. I was more interested in how the job acts on the cop.

POLICE: What makes or breaks your decision to include something in a book?

JW: Just if it's true: factually true if I'm doing non-fiction, or whether it's true to the spirit of the job if I'm doing fiction.

I'm finishing a novel now that's a sequel to "Hollywood Station," called "Hollywood Crows." I interviewed 100 cops for those two books, 50-some cops for each book. So whenever I write fiction I'm using the anecdotes that I got from these cops. I'm using their jargon. I'm keeping up on all of the new technical stuff that's going on.

Fundamentally though, people are people and cops are cops, so I understand all that. That part of it is the most important part. I experienced that for so long that I understand it thoroughly.

POLICE: You've given genesis to a new literary genre: cop books by cops. Are there any other authors who have made similar transitions that stand out to you?

JW: There's a NYPD copper named Edward Conlon who wrote a memoir, "Blue Blood." That dude can really write. He was a journalism major, and he'd done professional writing before he became a cop. There's another guy who was a journalist and he's with LAPD, Will Beall. He also can really write. These guys have writing chops all over the place. He wrote a book that was published last year called "L.A. Rex." He can really write, but this book is really a fable. He didn't try to make it realistic.

POLICE: What accounted for your sabbatical from LAPD fiction, and what made you decide to orient the new book around Hollywood?

JW: I thought that I'd written out everything I had to say about LAPD. But James Ellroy (the award-winning author of "L.A. Confidential" and other bestsellers) told me that someone has to write about the LAPD today under the federal consent decree and U.S. Attorney's Office, and I'm the logical guy to do it. I got to thinking about that and thought, "What the hell, I'll give it a shot," and I started interviewing cops. That's how it happened.

Why Hollywood? That's easy. Hollywood is the heart of the city, and it's more than a place. It's an idea: Hollywood.

And I've always liked Hollywood. When I worked Juvenile out of the old Georgia Street, they used to send us out to Hollywood on weekend nights to supplement what the Hollywood juvie cops had going because Friday and Saturday nights in Hollywood are wild for juvenile crime. We'd be in plain clothes. I'd be with a woman officer, and we'd go up there and bust runaways, juvenile hookers, juvenile dopers, all that, and take them to the old Hollywood Station.[PAGEBREAK]

POLICE: Female officers are portrayed very realistically in "Hollywood Station." Are there any characters that—by virtue of their gender, vice, race, religion, etc.—you have a difficult time writing?

JW: No, as you mentioned I think I identify with the female cops in "Hollywood Station" pretty closely. I don't know of anybody else who's ever written a scene with a woman officer lactating and using a breast pump [laughs]. I worked with women officers quite a lot in juvenile and in detectives. One of the main characters in "Hollywood Station" is Jewish, Hollywood Nate. I'm not Jewish, but I think that I do well by him. I've always written a lot about Latino cops and black cops.

You know, people are people, no matter what gender, what race, what religion. I think if you understand people to make your living and devote your life to trying to understand what makes people tick, I don't think it's too hard to imagine the life of a tweaker and what they have to do, and what they don't have to do, but do anyway. It's not so hard.

POLICE: The most moving character in "Hollywood Station" is the watch sergeant who is known to his cops as "The Oracle." Was The Oracle based on the veteran officers who mentored you?

JW: I think The Oracle was born of my long hiatus from writing about the LAPD and going back to it now after all these years. The Oracle is a guy my age. I attributed a line to him that, while perhaps implicit in other books, is explicit in "Hollywood Station." It comes after everybody's really down and depressed at the first roll call after one of them, Mag Takara, a female officer, gets badly injured by a pimp while posing as a hooker on Sunset Boulevard.

The Oracle gives the troops a talk and tells them to buck up. That doing good police work is the "most fun you will ever have in your entire lives. Think of that—the most fun you will ever have in your entire lives. So go out there tonight and have yourselves some fun." That, to me, is probably the greatest pep talk that the Oracle could have given at that moment. To put it so succinctly and explicitly is something I've never done before and it's something that I believe. I probably believe it more now than I did when I was younger. I couldn't see all of life as it is. Maybe that's why I dream about it so much.

POLICE: What are the most pronounced changes you've seen in the law enforcement profession over the past four decades?

JW: Oh, there's no question that it's more dangerous now, obviously, with the proliferation of gangs. The second big change would be the lack of support that's out there now—support that we used to have, particularly with LAPD now. I'm sure that law enforcement people in other cities and counties and states would probably echo this, but more so LAPD which deals with a federal consent decree and with the politics in Los Angeles as it is today and that racial cauldron. The lack of support for the police is just shameful.

POLICE: Which do you find more thematically interesting: the conventional dangers of the job or the newer internal threats?

JW: I probably find the latter more interesting. It can be fodder for satirizing. The other stuff—the physical danger—has been pretty well written about for a hundred years. So that's never been of that much interest to me.

I deal with the theme of cop suicide in my new novel, "Hollywood Crows." While I was in the process of writing it, I happened upon a statistic from the CHP that they had in the calendar year prior to when I started writing the novel. They had eight suicides, isn't that unbelievable? And their department isn't anywhere near as large as LAPD. They had eight suicides…eight! Male and female…eight!

Shit, if they had eight chippies shot and killed during that year, there would be all sorts of hell to pay and politicians weighing in in the press making noise. Suicide is a silent statistic in law enforcement. No one wants to talk about it.

POLICE: Whatever the cause of their demise, the protagonists that die in your books seem in retrospect to somehow fare better than those they leave behind—their friends and families left to deal with the aftermath. To what extent do you think that these thought processes factor into police suicides?

JW: Probably that minority group mentality—that no one understands us—permeates the thinking of law enforcement officers who are prone to suicide. That feeling of aloneness, being misunderstood, of not being able to explain what they are experiencing, and maybe some of the machismo in law enforcement that makes an officer reluctant to even discuss it with a fellow officer, probably plays a part. But it has always interested me, even before Karl Hettinger, it was always in the fact that I personally knew more cops who killed themselves—who murdered themselves—than were murdered by others. That struck me as a young cop.

POLICE: There are quite a few passages that you've written that stand out in their emotional impact. Does it tear your guts out writing that stuff?

JW: Yeah. It can speak volumes about the psychological isolation and trauma that some cops go through and they don't have anywhere to turn to, particularly in those days.

Nowadays, of course, there's a BSS (behavioral science section) guy in just about every station. But what I found out about that is that they are the loneliest people that work for the city because the machismo of the cop still makes it very difficult for coppers to walk into that person's office and sit down and say, "I'm troubled. I want to talk to you." So from what I hear, the BSS shrink is the loneliest person employed by the City of L.A.

POLICE: Is "Secrets of Harry Bright" still your favorite novel?

JW: It was because it says a lot about fathers and sons, so there's a certain profundity there that made me have a special feeling for it.

POLICE: What does the future hold for Joseph Wambaugh, aside from "Hollywood Crows?"

JW: Well, "Hollywood Crows" isn't even finished yet, so I have to work on that. I'm trying to put together a pilot for a Hollywood Station [TV drama] with David E. Kelley. I don't know if it's going to work out or not, but we're co-writing a pilot. I don't know if it'll go anywhere, but we'll see. And that's enough for now.

Dean Scoville retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department after 25 years of service. He is the Associate Editor of Police Magazine.

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