RANCHO SANTA FE, CALIF. — Joseph Wambaugh knows cops. He was one of them, retiring in 1971, as a sergeant, after 14 years in the Los Angeles Police Department. He has also made a great living writing bestsellers, both fiction and nonfiction, about cops and their cases, beginning with "The New Centurions"--written while Wambaugh was still working the burglary detail. His 12th and latest book "The Golden Orange," published last year, is about an alcoholic, ex-Newport Beach cop's encounters with the decadence of Orange County. In between, there was "The Blue Knight," "The Onion Field" and "The Blooding."
His literary output has been rated positively by critics as a realistic--as opposed to sensationalist--view of what police do; Wambaugh prides himself on sticking close to the source. He still hangs out at cop bars and rides patrols while doing his research--recently averaging several years per book.
Now 54, and wealthy enough to have lived for the past decade close to the watering holes of the super rich in Newport and, more recently, northern San Diego, Wambaugh still proudly identifies himself as "proletarian" in outlook as well as origin. His father was a cop and a steelworker back in Pittsburgh. Young Wambaugh came out to California to attend a family funeral and stayed on to attend high school in Ontario. After graduating, he spent three years in the Marines, another three as a steelworker and then the LAPD. During that time, he earned a BA and Masters in English at Cal State L.A. After 34 years, he is still married to his high-school sweetheart, Dee, and--thanks to a daily stint on the exercycle--still trim.
Wambaugh always thinks blue--as a sergeant-badge paperweight on his desk attests. Even in this opulent setting, where homes are landscaped with fruit orchards and a Range Rover is considered a Jeep, Wambaugh remains very much the street cop. He is defensive about "the men" who patrol the streets every night, suspicious of the brass, doubting of the credentials of the Christopher Commission--which presumed, in a matter of months, to grasp the reality of a world he clearly does not want to leave behind.
Yet Wambaugh the writer is thoughtful and serious--close at hand was a marked-up copy of the commission's report and copious notes on a yellow pad, intended to guide his remarks. Clearly he is torn between disgust with what he perceives to be a small minority of out-of-line officers and concern for the potential "demoralization" of what he described several times as "the most effective crime-fighting machine on Earth." But, he realizes profound change is coming and just when it sounded like he was going to launch into an archetype "Dirty Harry" monologue, Wambaugh came up with a socko suggestion. Don't peek because, being a good writer, he builds nicely to the end.
Question: The Christopher Commission report is largely about the culture of cops. You are as familiar with that culture as anyone. Did the commission get it right?
Answer: The report has some good stuff in the recommendations, but it's inherently trivial because they missed the psychology in all this. For example, the report does not deal with the fear factor nor with the gallows humor--which is one of the cop's most valuable tools as a self-defense in tragic situations. The gallows humor is used to maintain denial mechanisms, dehumanize the adversary. "He's not like me: He's an animal. He's scum. He's inhuman."
Q: Is that how you view the racist MDT transcripts that have been released?
A: Let me start off by saying that no transmissions like that should ever be indulged in. That computer in cars is not meant for "little-boy" humor. But, my God, there were transmissions about "slapping around an 85-year-old lady whom we had to take in for medical treatment," a "14-year-old covered with salad oil chained to my workout machine." That's obviously little-boy humor--the macho humor of cops.
We have in police work, not just in Los Angeles, but everywhere, we have super-aggressive 22-year-olds, full of testosterone, full of energy, absolutely immortal and unable to admit fear, unable to verbalize fear--even to themselves. Hence they get caught up in all this damn silly defense-mechanism business, this dehumanizing, this gallows humor, and all of that--and don't even understand that they are doing it most of the time. I'm not talking about female cops. I'm talking about young male cops, basically, who stay little boys until they are in middle age, or beyond . . . .
Q: Is part of the answer more female officers?