The IACSP Q&A with former LAPD Detective Sergeant and Best-Selling Author Joseph Wambaugh
Interview by Paul Davis
Wambaugh: I would simply revert to a bit of basic math. There are approximately 700,000 cops in the U.S. serving about 18,000 police departments. The police engage in about 55 million citizen contacts every year. The terrible George Floyd killing triggered other highly publicized accusations alleging unlawful deadly force. Let’s assume that the accusations continue to grow until there are as many as, let’s say, 55 in the U.S. this year.
And let’s pretend that after investigations are concluded, the complaints are all affirmed – that is not the case, but let’s assume the worst for the sake of argument. Therefore, in a perilous job involving ever-present possibility of violence, the numbers would come to about one allegation of unlawful deadly force per one million citizen contacts.
The George Floyd incident was horrible to watch, but I wonder what other dangerous profession involving instant life-and-death decisions can claim a better record than one in a million? Perfection will never be possible in a cop’s highly imperfect world.
Wambaugh: Let’s hear from people who have engaged in physical confrontations on the streets with someone who was bigger, stronger, and more bent on extreme violence. Upon being on the verge of losing, knowing that a loss may result in serious injury or death, the chokehold is often a cop’s only hope, that is, if the chokehold can even be applied during violent grappling. It has saved more cops than batons and tasers and all other defensive devices combined.
Wambaugh: This is so silly I don’t know where to begin or what to say, other than social workers would have a very hard time of it if their subject suddenly produced a weapon and began using on them during an attempt at street counseling. This is something that cops face all the time.
Wambaugh: It goes without saying that these critics are only talking about white cops. So, let’s take a look at my Department, the LAPD, which is often accused of this. So how does the LAPD manage to be systemically racist in 2021when only 29% of the police department is white?
Wambaugh: That would be ending the only thing we have to keep dangerous offenders in custody for a while as they await trial.
Oh, it’s crushing to morale. The cops were just overwhelmed with paperwork. They felt that 9,300 of them are being punished for the acts of about four. Going back to 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.
Wambaugh: Right. 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.
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.
Wambaugh: No. I start out with nothing but phone calls to cops. You’ll notice in the acknowledgment page on that I believe I interviewed 52 cops, and for “ I think it was 54.
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.
IACSP: 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. Why do you think cops are such good storytellers?
Wambaugh: 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
Wambaugh: Yes, I would advise certain young people to become police officers. Because I believe that doing good police work can provide the most fun that they will ever have in their entire lives. This was spoken by the old LAPD sergeant dubbed “The Oracle” in my novel, “Hollywood Station.” But police work is not for the types who are utterly crushed by confrontation and negative criticism. My advice to those young people would be, if you want love, join the fire department.