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The Beat Goes On

Sure, he hung up his LAPD badge 22 years ago, but you'd never know it. Joseph Wambaugh still talks the talk and writes crime books. His newest is 'Floaters.' Oh, and he has a few thoughts about his former employer.

May 28, 1996|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He is the icon of old cops. He knows their jokes and their language. His humor covers the short, lively spectrum from off-color to black. He drinks beer, has little use for lawyers and no shortage of opinions. He is of the Los Angeles Police Department, and once was its messenger to the world.

Joseph Wambaugh changed the way readers think of cops. Twenty-five years ago, he sat down at his portable Royal typewriter and told the stories of his beat, of the grime and drugs and booze and tedium and raw fear of policing America's second-largest and fastest-changing city. His characters were his colleagues. Wambaugh wrote "The New Centurions" in his spare time; his day job was working the detective desk in the Hollenbeck Division.

These days, Wambaugh has traded in his Royal for an electronic typewriter. His spacious home sits behind a security gate and overlooks San Diego's grand harbor. The view flows off an immaculate green lawn, past a swimming pool and fountain and sharply down to the horizon. He still drinks beer, but he likes the good ones and occasionally downs them in places like the San Diego Yacht Club, which bears as much resemblance to an L.A. cop bar as it does to an all-night doughnut shop.

And yet, despite his new company and new digs, Wambaugh is what he always has been: irascible, opinionated and perceptive, his ear tuned to the cadence and language of the beat, his eye focused on the essential elements of a tale. His new book, "Floaters" (Bantam), is set around the America's Cup--a long way from South-Central, but it's still about cops and criminals at work. At 59, Wambaugh is older and long gone from policing, but he knows his business.

"A novel about the America's Cup would be boring," he says as he and a friend, Dick Gant, negotiate a choppy swell in Wambaugh's powerboat, the Bookworm. "But throw in some murder and some masseuses, and that's a story."

Joe Wambaugh, a married ex-Marine with no clear career in mind, joined the LAPD in 1960 because it paid better than teaching school and because it was the LAPD.

"That was Jack Webb's police department," he says.

It wasn't long before Wambaugh saw chaos up close. In 1965, while assigned to Juvenile Division, he was told one day to throw on a uniform and ship out to 77th Street. A few miles away, the Watts riots were smoldering, violence flaring in spots but the full fury still held in check.

That afternoon, Friday the 13th of August, Wambaugh and about 30 other cops were trying to keep a crowd at Manchester and Figueroa under control when gunshots ripped through the scaldingly hot afternoon.

"I don't know who the hell fired," he says. "Probably us."

Whoever started it, it was now the police's job to end it. Over the next few days, Wambaugh would watch some rise to that task and others falter before it. Police radio operators would burst into tears, overwhelmed by the onslaught of calls and by sheer exhaustion. One officer would break down into peals of hysterical laughter as he stared at the shattered butt of his shotgun. Over and over, cops would reel at the sound of gunshots and search in vain and in fear for the shooters.

"That was not police work," Wambaugh says. "Police are not trained for that. We shouldn't be. That was work for the military."

After hours of mounting tension and violence, Wambaugh and his partner spotted a looter and Wambaugh's partner ended up shooting the perpetrator in the ankle.

"I was never so relieved," he remembers. "That meant we would take him down to the hospital and get off the street, at least for a few hours."

*

In those days, Wambaugh was wending his way through the ranks of the LAPD. He would eventually do tours in all four of what cops back then called the "ghetto divisions": University, Wilshire, Newton and 77th.

He earned promotions to sergeant and detective. His old partner, Richard Kalk, remembers him as a solid, common-sense investigator who cracked more than his share of tough cases.

In the mid-1960s, for instance, a school custodian was murdered, and it was Wambaugh who remembered that a local kid had burglarized that same school. The police went and found the kid and turned up the custodian's keys. Case closed. Years later, Kalk arrested the same guy again and found a newspaper clip of his arrest by Wambaugh in his wallet.

Off hours, Wambaugh went to school, eventually earning his master's degree in English from Cal State Los Angeles in 1968 and then setting out to turn himself into a writer.

"All English majors get that idea. You read all these great books and start thinking you can do it by osmosis," he says. "Most 22-year-olds set out to write the great American novel, and it inevitably turns out to be 'My First Lay.' At least I waited until I had some life experience. I waited until I was 30, until I had seven years on the job, before I wrote one line."

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