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My LAPD, again

October 09, 2006|Joseph Wambaugh | JOSEPH WAMBAUGH is a former LAPD detective sergeant whose novel, "Hollywood Station," will be published in November.

A YEAR AGO, I had concluded that there were no more novels left in me and that my next book, if there was one, would be nonfiction. And then along came the wild one, author James Ellroy, back from his exile in various states and a brief sojourn in lovely Carmel. He was back in L.A., where he started, and he has been quoted as saying, "It's a multicultural hellhole, egregiously smoggy and overcrowded, and I'm thrilled to be here."

The author of "The Black Dahlia" and "L.A. Confidential" lives on my favorite street in all of Los Angeles, Rossmore Avenue.

Why Rossmore? It's retro and romantic for anyone with powerful remembrances of things past. One sees ghosts on Rossmore, Mae West for one, sashaying out of the Ravenswood to a waiting limo and two hunky escorts for a night at the Cocoanut Grove. I used to patrol that street when I was a young cop assigned to Wilshire Division. And nobody ever punched me in the mouth on Rossmore Avenue.

After having written seven books about the LAPD, I had not written about my former department for 20 years, content to write books about other places: Newport Beach, San Diego, Palm Springs, even Pennsylvania and the Midlands of England, where DNA typing was discovered. But Ellroy convinced me in a short conversation that someone had to write a novel about the current LAPD, and that I -- the LAPD chronicler, a copper in person or in spirit for nearly half a century -- was the one who could do it justice, who could understand how so many things have changed but how some things never do.

Ellroy produced the starter pistol and pulled the trigger. I was back in the race.

And so I began interviewing police officers, 54 of them this time, over dinner and drinks, usually four at a time and segregated by gender so that women would feel freer to complain about male cops and vice versa. For fellow writers interested in my method, I can tell you that female officers are cheaper dates. It takes, on average, 2 1/2 drinks to get male cops talking freely. Women will unload after smelling the cork. And the women are not afraid to express powerful emotions, the stuff of storytelling.

Soon I found myself at Hollywood station, and it was eerie to see there on the staircase wall a huge photo of the onion field where Hollywood Division Officer Ian Campbell was murdered long ago and about which I wrote a nonfiction book. And it was a bit strange riding in a radio car, more often called a "shop" these days because of the shop number printed across the roof for easy identification by the police helicopter, now called an "airship." There, separating the driver and passenger, was a computer screen with calls assigned and answered by young people who grew up computer savvy.

Thankfully, there also was the familiar and comforting sound of police communications voices, and the beep that precedes urgent calls. I can say that at least one of Chief Bill Bratton's policies is universally acclaimed by today's cops. Most hot calls are now assigned Code 3 -- which calls for light bars and sirens -- in order to discourage adrenaline-overloaded cops from blowing through stop signs without them. Thus, the chief has introduced a bit of New York to Los Angeles. There are sirens sounding all over town, and the young coppers love it. Let's face it, driving Code 3 is fun.

What they do not love is the federal consent decree that subjects them to mountains of paperwork, mind-numbing audits and oppressive oversight. This bureaucratic overkill devours time that should be spent doing what LAPD cops have always done better than anyone: catching lawbreakers.

They understand that the old days of LAPD rock 'n' rule are over, but, at the same time, they are worried that constant criticism, fueled by intimidating layers of oversight, will turn the LAPD from the proactive model that every law enforcement agency in the nation once copied to a hobbled corps of hand-waving, risk-aversive PR persons in blue.

They believe that, although it is an unhealthy thing for the public to fear the police, it is a healthy thing for criminals to fear the police, and now that healthy fear has been emasculated. The number of gun attacks on LAPD officers this year lends credence to their argument.

But there is one thing that has not changed, and if the morale of the LAPD breaks down so far that change comes even here, I pity the City of Angels. It is this: Doing good police work is fun.

One cop said to me: "If I win the California Lottery tomorrow, I won't leave the job. Where else could I have the fun that I have here? Sometimes."

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