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Police author Wambaugh weighs in on LAPD scandal

Joseph Wambaugh
Wambaugh then, left, and today, right  

Officers aren't perfect, but most police are 'good cops'

March 10, 2000
Web posted at: 11:14 p.m. EST (0414 GMT)

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Years before the corruption scandal involving the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division became public, LAPD veteran Joseph Wambaugh was writing about imperfect police officers.

Part of Wambaugh may always be a police officer because of his 14 years of working on the LAPD. He worked in a different era, when honest, low-key officers were glorified by TV shows such as "Dragnet."

It was Wambaugh, however, who ripped apart that idealized image, with a series of best-selling books -- including "The Choirboys" -- which showed Los Angeles police as imperfect human beings.

VideoCNN's Anne McDermott talks with Jospeh Wambaugh, who says the LAPD is getting a bad reputation.
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Wambaugh believes not much has changed.

"Police work is still, in my opinion, the most emotionally hazardous job on earth," he said. "Not the most physically dangerous, but the most emotionally dangerous, because it tends to lead young people into premature cynicism."

Members of the LAPD's Rampart Division are currently under investigation on charges that include shooting unarmed individuals, and fabricating and planting evidence against innocent people.

The corruption scandal is the worst in the department's history, with almost 40 convictions overturned after prosecutors became convinced that evidence against the accused was tainted. Officials believe that nearly 100 people may have been wrongly convicted based on false testimony by police officers in the Rampart Division.

But Wambaugh is sympathetic to the police officers.

"They go out there on the streets of Rampart and say, 'look at all this garbage, these people we're dealing with, these gangsters, they're garbage,'" he said.

"And then, pretty soon, the next step is, 'well, everybody seems to be garbage.' And then the final, fatal step is, 'if everybody is garbage, what am I?'"

Wambaugh suspects some officers in the Rampart Division scandal probably did commit crimes. But he also believes such offending officers were few in number, and he calls them an aberration.

"It's (corruption) never been systemic, because a fish rots from the head," Wambaugh said. "And in order to have systemic corruption, then you must have corrupt city government, you must have a corrupt police chief.

"It can't be otherwise, so it's always been isolated cases," he added.

Wambaugh knows the LAPD's reputation has suffered in recent years, from such high-profile cases as the Rodney King incident, when white police officers beat a black motorist. But while he believes the department can be overzealous, he does not believe it is especially racist.

"Did the fact that Rodney King was black prove that the LAPD are racists? There were other black people in Rodney King's car that night, who were not harmed in any way," he argued.

But Wambaugh does say that overzealous police officers and overzealous media create strong perceptions for the public. And he says the current corruption investigation unfairly taints the entire department, a department he believes that deserves better.

"I would say morale is already crippled," Wambaugh said. "And that means you will have less proactive police work. You'll have cops out there who'll say, 'just keep your eyes down, answer your calls, get your pension and retire,' and that's the worst thing that could happen."

Already, Wambaugh said, good police officers are leaving the force.

"And many more cops will leave for greener pastures, where they are appreciated with other police departments, and that is a tragedy."

Wambaugh's writing ended his own career with the LAPD 26 years ago. But reading his books, it could be argued he never really left. And, even after all these years, he said he sometimes still dreams about the LAPD.

Public support for LAPD officers still high
March 9, 2000
Controversial anti-gang units to disband amid LAPD probe
March 4, 2000
Lawsuit alleges Los Angeles police targeted Hispanic males
February 29, 2000
LAPD chief enlists FBI's help to probe scandal
February 23, 2000
Mayor wants tobacco money to fund police scandal settlements
February 17, 2000
Outside probe of LAPD corruption scandal demanded
February 16, 2000
Testimony: Allegedly corrupt LAPD cops gave each other awards
February 10, 2000
LAPD chief: Ex-officer says convictions against 99 people wrongfully obtained
January 27, 2000

The Los Angeles Police Department
The Rampart Division
Los Angeles County District Attorney
Federal Bureau of Investigation
St. Sophia Cathedral
U.S. Department of Justice

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