Thursday, November 12, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Semper Cop, My Q & A With Joseph Wambaugh

Joseph Wambaugh fans, and there are many, including most of the current crop of crime writers being published today, will find his latest novel, Hollywood Crows, to be as entertaining and poignant as his previous classic novels about cops, crime and how those crimes effect the cops.

As I wrote in my Philadelphia Inquirer review of his previous novel, Hollywood Station, I’ve gone out on many a ride-along with the Philadelphia police and I’ve witnessed the drama, the horror and the comedy that cops encounter on those mean streets. I’ve also witnessed their bravery, compassion and humor in response to the worst possible human behavior.

Joseph Wambaugh, 71, a former Los Angeles detective sergeant and author of 18 novels and nonfiction books, takes the reader on just such a ride-along in his novels.

Hollywood Station offered stark realism, blunt language and abundant humor. In the first of a trilogy of novels depicting the cops who man the Hollywood police station in Los Angeles, California, Wambaugh’s cast of characters include the surfer cops, Jetsam and Flotsam, Hollywood Nate, a patrolman and aspiring actor, and the caring and wise, 69-year-old sergeant known as "the Oracle."

Perhaps only in Hollywood would the police respond to an altercation between Batman and Spiderman, with Marilyn Monroe making the 911 call. And did I mention that the witnesses were not one, but three Elvis Presleys? Wambaugh offers a humorous depiction of the tourist-hustling costumed characters who pose for photos with visitors in front of the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.

A jewelry store robbery is the key to a series of vignettes involving a meth-addicted thief, Eastern European gangsters and homeless people, who all interact with the Hollywood cops, leading to a climatic shootout at a nightclub.

Wambaugh returns to the scene of the crime in Holywood Crows. The sequel to Hollywood Station offers some of the characters from the previous novel, such as Flotsam and Jetsam, the female officers Ronnie Sinclair and Cat Song, and Hollywood Nat. Unfortunately, their beloved sergeant, the late Oracle, has been replaced by a young, incompetent sergeant named Jason Treakle. Hollywood Nate describes the martinet sergeant’s roll call speeches as "a perfect meld of George Bush’s garbled syntax and the tin ear of Al Gore."

The new sergeant adds to the woe of the Hollywood cops, who since the LAPD Ramparts scandal and the Rodney King incident must contend with cumbersome bureaucratic oversight via a federal consent degree. Hollywood Crows also introduces us to Bix Rumstead, a solid family man and one of several LAPD community relations officers (or Crows).

We also meet Gert Von Braun; a policewoman that the other cops claim has "ETS," or explosive temper syndrome. Prior to being assigned to Hollywood Station, she had shot and killed an armed robber in the act, which made her a "celebrity gunslinger." Another great cop character is "Compassionate Charlie" Gilford. Wambaugh writes that the night-watch detective is lazy and sensitivity-challenged.

The plot of Hollywood Crows evolves around the contentious divorce and child custody battle between Ali Aziz, a sleazy strip club owner and Margot, his estranged ex-stripper wife. Both of them hatch schemes to do the other in, and they draw in several of the book’s characters, including a pathetic, crack-addicted thief named Leonard Stillwell.

I reviewed Hollywood Crows for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and I wrote that although one might think there is nothing funny about drug addiction, greed, murder and suicide, Wambaugh’s black humor and social satire will make you laugh – and then think.

Wambaugh was born in 1937 in East Pittsburgh. The son of a police officer, Wambaugh joined the Marines at 17, married his wife Dee in 1955, and graduated from California State University in 1960. He joined the LAPD that same year and served as a patrolman and later as a detective sergeant.

He wrote his first three novels – The New Centurions, The Blue Knight and The Choirboys while still serving on the LAPD. He retired in 1974 to become a full-time writer.

Wambaugh received the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe special award for nonfiction, The Onion Field, in 1974, and he won another Edgar award for best screenplay, The Black Marble, in 1981. He also won the International Association of Crime Writer’s Rodolfo Walsh Prize for Investigative Journalism for Lines and Shadows in 1989.

Many of his novels and nonfiction books have been made into films and television programs, and he was the creator of Police Story, an award-winning and influential television program.

I was very pleased to have been able to speak to Joe Wambaugh over the phone from his home in San Diego, California.

DAVIS: It’s good to talk with you. I’ve been reading your books since The New Centurions, so I feel like I know you.

WAMBAUGH: That was a long time ago.

DAVIS: I think Hollywood Crows is a very good novel. I like so much of the book, but I especially like your portrayal of the costumed street characters who hustle tourists in Los Angeles. So for my first question, is there really an LAPD Street Character Task Force?

WAMBAUGH: Yeah, there is. Every once in a while they got to get out there and work them when they get too aggressive.

DAVIS: Why do you think crime stories are compelling?

WAMBAUGH: I think because there are so many problems in life that are insoluble that people like crime stories because usually things get wrapped up, and the world seems like a more orderly place than it really is.

But not in my books. I don’t write typical crime or mystery stories. Very often, the cops don’t even solve the crimes in my books. Sometimes they solve themselves and sometimes they don’t, but very seldom do the cops do it.

As a matter of fact, my stories could never fit into the thriller or mystery category because there are no extravagant serial killers, there are no flamboyant master criminals - they are the Stillwells of this world, those kinds of people - the little people.

DAVIS: Well, there are more of them than there are serial killers, and you’re more likely to encounter them than serial killers…

WAMBAUGH: Yes, the cops don’t encounter master criminals and serial killers very often in their careers, or ever.

DAVIS: I’ve read that you interview a good number of police officers and used their stories in the books, but how do you plan your novels? Do you start out with developed characters in mind, or a theme or plot, and then incorporate the stories you hear?

WAMBAUGH: No. I start out with nothing but phone calls to cops. You’ll notice in the acknowledgment page on Hollywood Station that I believe I interviewed 52 cops, and for Hollywood Crows I think it was 54.

Right now I’m doing the third book in that trilogy, and it’s going to be another Hollywood sequel, and so far I’m up to 60 cops.
So I start out with nothing and I start interviewing the cops at drinks and dining sessions, four at a time until I get enough anecdotal material, dialogue and ideas to begin writing a story.
I have no outline; I have nothing in mind when I sit down with these cops. Nothing at all. They act, I react.
DAVIS: Well it certainly works well for you. I talk to a lot of police officers and I go out on a lot of ride-alongs, and I’ve found that most police officers are really good storytellers. They may not be good novelists – you’re the exception – but they are good storytellers. Why do you think cops are such good storytellers?

WAMBAUGH: First of all they get good material in their work. Most of us in life, including me right now, sitting in this house, I don’t gather material. I lead a boring life. They don’t. They’re out there seeing people, doing things, and as the Oracle in Hollywood Station said, "Doing good police work is the most fun you’ll ever have in your life."

So they are out there occasionally having fun when they do good police work and they are gathering material whether they know it or not. And once in a while someone like me will pop up and say, hey, tell me a few stories. And often they are eager to do it.

DAVIS: I especially like the black humor, which I saw in the military as well. In your novels you’ve been very critical of the federal oversight of the LAPD, and you mock the political correctness as well. How much do you think this affects officer morale, which of course affects good police work?

WAMBAUGH: Oh, it’s crushing to morale. It has been going on now for six years. This judge doesn’t want to let go. I think he’s enjoying the power, and of course the auditors that are being hired to do the auditing and overseeing, they love it. They are making millions. The city, the taxpayers, of course they’re paying for it. The cops are just overwhelmed with paperwork.

They feel that 9,300 of them are being punished for the acts of about four. The so-called Ramparts scandal resulted in two cops going to prison. That’s what brought on the federal oversight, that and the Rodney King affair. You have thousands of cops saying, you show me another profession or vocation where only three or four out of 9,300 are crooks. Hell, the U.S. Congress can’t boast those numbers.

DAVIS: Or attorneys.

WAMBAUGH: Right. So cops feel it’s grossly unfair, and as a matter of fact, they caught their own crooks! In the Ramparts scandal, the two bad cops were caught by other cops. So it’s not as though the feds are coming in and catching the occasional bad apple. No, the LAPD are catching their own bad apples.

DAVIS: What advise would you give to a big city police chief concerning officer morale and crime-fighting in general?

WAMBAUGH: I wouldn’t.

DAVIS: (laughs) But I think you do, indirectly, with your novels and nonfiction books.

WAMBAUGH: Well, this is a simple, little morale-boosting technique that the Oracle uses, but I think it should be used more often; during times of stress and distress, when the press is down on them, and the civil libertarians are taking jabs at them, and when they can’t seem to find anybody who likes them, they should be reminded by their administration that doing good police work is the most fun they will ever have in their entire lives.

And you have to live a long time to know the truth of that. Those youngsters should be reminded of that. It is just a little, mild trick that the Oracle in Hollywood Station uses very effectively. Maybe I’d remind police chiefs, if I ever talk to one, to keep that in mind when they are giving their little pep talks.

DAVIS: I’ve read that one of your original goals in writing novels was to humanize the image of police officers – if that’s so, do you think you’ve largely succeeded with your novels, the films and the TV series Police Story?

WAMBAUGH: Oh, yeah, sure. If I don’t humanize them, that is make them come to life as human beings, then no one is going to read my stuff and I’m a failure. That’s what I mean by humanize, bring them to life. I don’t mean clean up their image.

DAVIS: What I liked about Police Story is that we didn’t see the same lead character every week. You see a show like Miami Vice, where the main characters shot and killed about 752 people in just one season. The slaughter never seemed to ruffle their wardrobe or their psych.
You know better than I that police officers rarely do that, and perhaps some officers may have to take a life or two in a career, but that would be tops. But with an anthology series like Police Story you have different lead characters, so it seems to be more authentic.

WAMBAUGH: Yes, that’s why we did it that way, but we were the last successful anthology and there have been only a few successful anthologies in all of broadcast television. The viewing public want stories where there are is a continuing cast involved and where they can come back to them each week to feel comfortable that way. And so the anthology just doesn’t sell.

DAVIS: Perhaps cable TV will make a difference. Did you like The Wire?

WAMBAUGH: Yeah, it’s a well-done show.

DAVIS: Did you find the cops to be authentic?

WAMBAUGH: To a point. I’ve never seen the antics pulled that they do there.

DAVIS: Yes, well the fake serial killer plot and the drug-free zone plot was a bit over-the-top.

WAMBAUGH: (laughs) A little over-the-top.

DAVIS: I also think that Kimba, the cop who turned in the detectives for the fake serial killer scheme, would not have been warmly welcomed back by them. I think they would have been pissed at her.

WAMBAUGH: I think so too.

DAVIS: What I liked on The Wire was that we saw a reversal of what one normally sees on TV cop shows. You always saw cops and feds fighting over jurisdiction on most shows. "Back off, this is my case."
On The Wire after a dozen Eastern European girls were found dead in a shipping container, we saw the police agencies fight over not having jurisdiction. The Baltimore homicide chief spoke of his stats going up 12 per cent if they were stuck with the case. I got a kick out of that.

WAMBAUGH: That was my experience when I was a detective. We were always trying to give away jurisdiction. When the LAPD caught bank robbers, for instance, they would do the fun work – kicking down the door and catching the guys – and then for all the paperwork and the prosecution, the LAPD was only too glad to turn it over to the feds. Let the FBI handle all of that. And then the FBI would take the credit.
DAVIS: Do you think that fiction today still has the power to influence the way we think about police officers, war or anything? Do you think that fiction has the power it had maybe 30 or 40 years ago?

WAMBAUGH: No, I don’t. I think the reason is simple, I believe the percentage of careful readers has declined enormously. The average person does not read the newspaper. The average person doesn’t read even one book a year. Back in my day people used to read, and cops used to read. Nowadays, no way.

DAVIS: Well perhaps the shift is towards the Internet. I write for print newspapers as well as for online publications, and I don’t know if I have more readers online, but I do know that I receive more responses from online readers than I do from print.

WAMBAUGH: Yes, but they are reading short pieces on the Internet. They are not sitting there, as they used to do back in the day, reading a 400-page book.

DAVIS: I went to Drexel University to hear my former editor, Frank Wilson, the retired book-editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, speak to the students about books. I was pleased to hear the students say that they were in fact reading online. I brought up that I thought the Internet was ideal for short stories, and the Internet may offer a re-birth for the short story.

WAMBAUGH: Short pieces, sure, but we have no hope in the publishing business of doing big money online as far as full-length books are concerned.

DAVIS: Who or what influenced you growing up?

WAMBAUGH: Books did. I went to the library. As a young boy I was influenced by Jack London. He was the favorite for a lot of young boys.

DAVIS: Did you want to become a police officer before you desired to become a writer? What came first?

WAMBAUGH: I was an English major when I got out of the Marines. When I graduated I was going to be a teacher, but the LAPD was paying a lot and I decided to give it a try. So I wanted to be a teacher and ended up being a cop. I thought this would be a good career for me for about 20 years, and then I could become a teacher.

But in the meantime, the writing bug bit, as it does for all English majors, and I started writing short stories. I was a closet writer.
DAVIS: What kind of man or woman do you think becomes a police officer today? Is there a common dominator?

WAMBAUGH: I don’t think so. Norman Mailer had a few theories on that, but he was full of bullshit. Someone has to have a bit of assertiveness in their personality, I would think. I’m thinking of women in particular. There has to be a little something there, thinking they can go out and get in somebody’s face and do the job.

DAVIS: I’ve read that you are developing a TV series based on the Hollywood novels with David E. Kelly. Do you have a network or a projected air date?

WAMBAUGH: That fell through. We were together for a year, and as they say in show biz, there were creative differences between us. We were co-writing a pilot and at the end of the year’s option I didn’t renew it.
Nice guy, but I just felt that we didn’t have the same vision, and now as we speak, my agent is negotiating with Sony Pictures for a TV project with Hollywood Station.

DAVIS: I hope you go to cable. You have a lot more freedom of expression there. Good luck with that, and I look forward to seeing it.
I’ve read you’ve been sued every time you write a non-fiction book. Do you plan to write any more nonfiction books?

WAMBAUGH: I never plan, but it something popped up that interested me, of course I’d love to.

I was sued for every one except for The Blooding, which takes place in England. In England, as in all civilized countries except America, you sue someone at your own peril, because if you fail in your lawsuit against someone, you will pay their legal fees. But not in the United States. Anyone can sue me with impunity, just by getting some ambulance-chaser. And by giving him 35% of whatever he recovers, he’ll file a lawsuit for a couple hundred dollars. And knowing it will cause me thousands to defend, they hope they can blackmail me into paying. I don’t blackmail. I fight them and it costs a fortune.

I don’t think it’s going to change in America because the country is run by lawyers and they don’t want that to change. In every other country in the Western World there is a penalty if you sue and fail. You will pay all, or part, of the prevailing defendant’s legal fees. That’s called "loser pays," and until America adopts that our civil trial system will continue to be the mess that it is.
We pay for it in all the goods and services because they allow all the lawsuits they’re going to get.

DAVIS: I’ve read that you have called for a professional jury system as well.

WAMBAUGH: Yes. In criminal cases, I think it’s time for that. Look at the O.J. trial or any of the famous trials where DNA and scientific evidence was involved - the juries don’t have a clue. They don’t understand any of it. They get emotionally involved.

DAVIS: It appears that celebrities can get away with murder in Hollywood – literally.
I used to enjoy your appearances on Johnny Carson and I liked the humorous stories you used to tell about yourself. Good stuff. Have you ever thought of writing a memoir or an autobiographical novel?

WAMBAUGH: No, I would never do that.

DAVIS: Pity, I think it would be interesting. I’ve enjoyed all of your books, and I love The Choirboys, as it was so funny, but in my view, The Onion Field was your best work. That was a great non-fiction book. I think it ranks with Capote’s In Cold Blood.
WAMBAUGH: Thank you. I’m proud of the movie too.

DAVIS: James Woods was great, as were the other actors in the film.

WAMBAUGH: Ted Danson too. That was his first movie role.

DAVIS: Lastly, do you still believe that good police work is the most fun one can have? Knowing what you know today, would you still become a police officer?

WAMBAUGH: Yes, it is the most fun I ever had. And I look back in sadness, really, because I realize I’ll never have that fun again.

DAVIS: I recall when another elderly cop tells the Oracle that they have a crummy job in Hollywood Station, and the Oracle simply replies, "It’s all we have – Semper Cop."
You can visit Joseph Wambaugh's website via the below link:

Note: The above column originally appeared in The Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine in 2008.

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