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Joseph Wambaugh sounds off

The dean of crime writers talks about the LAPD, the mellowing of his work, and why his publisher doesn't know who he is

Los Angeles police veteran and crime author Joseph Wambaugh believes the current scandal rocking the LAPD is much smaller than portrayed and the results of the investigation will be equally minor
Los Angeles police veteran and crime author Joseph Wambaugh believes the current scandal rocking the LAPD is much smaller than portrayed and the results of the investigation will be equally minor  

In this story:

Hard cases and alcoholics

A hard man to find

RELATED STORIES Downward pointing arrow

NEW YORK (CNN) -- You cannot talk about American crime writing, be it fiction or nonfiction, without at some point discussing the contributions of Joseph Wambaugh. The Los Angeles police veteran -- he served as a detective in that force's Hollenbeck Division -- has 15 books to his credit: four works of nonfiction and 11 novels. Eight of them have been made into feature and television films. Wambaugh's gritty, hyper-realistic style has influenced countless authors since his 1970s heyday, and almost all of his books remain in print.

The author has never been afraid to be bluntly honest, and in an interview that ranged from the current LAPD scandals to his current relative anonymity, he didn't flinch.

LAPD Scandal
Do you think 'true crime' novels stick to the meat of a criminal investigation, or are they generally fictionalized?

Yes, I think most novels in the 'true crime' genre stick to the facts
No, If it sells a crime novel faster most authors won't hesitate to embellish.
View Results

In Wambaugh's opinion, the troubles rocking the LAPD are due to politics. The scandal, in the department's Rampart Division, is based on allegations of corruption made by former officer Rafael Perez, who said officers have planted evidence, filed false reports and framed gang members for crimes they didn't commit. (Perez, who was caught stealing cocaine from an evidence room, began cooperating with prosecutors in exchange for a lenient sentence.)

"The scandal, I can tell you for sure, is much smaller than the press would lead you to believe," Wambaugh stated flatly. "It's driven by the L.A. Times, which hates the administration of the LAPD and has for many years. Part of the fault of that lies with LAPD, for not cozying up to the Times when it should have. I think a police department must give access to the press, and be open with the press, and the LAPD was not for many years, and they're paying the price for it now."

A spokesman for the Los Angeles Times declined to comment.

Wambaugh expects the results will be equally minor. "Eventually, the thing will shake down to prosecutions and acquittals, and I will be surprised if more than one or two cops join Perez in prison," he said. "It's that small. Unfortunately, there will be a few dozen people disciplined, suspended, fired for things like failure to sign reports properly, for rather trivial administrative offenses in order to save face and make the police administration look better."

Hard cases and alcoholics


Ironically, this situation could have come straight out of Wambaugh's 1975 hit "The Choirboys," in which the LAPD brass, attempting to cover up the drunken shenanigans of a group of burnt-out cops, stonewall the press while ruthlessly destroying the officers' careers.

Wambaugh's books are filled with cops such as those in "The Choirboys": hard cases, alcoholics, officers grappling with the worst society has to offer. When he started writing, it was almost unheard-of to present police in that fashion. Now it's commonplace. Police officers' real-life lives haven't gotten any better since he started writing, he said, and the human cost of police work remains hidden.

"I read a statistic recently that NYPD had more cops who died by their own hands than were killed on duty," Wambaugh said. "This was from '96 to '99, I think. If you follow that nationwide, looking at fatal gunshot wounds among cops, you'd find an enormous number of them were self-inflicted. There's the real code of silence. That number has never been talked about much, it's something you would have to dig out of a police force.

"It's always been a fearful statistic, because cops not only see the worst of people, but they see ordinary people at their worst," he continued. "And when you're bombarded with that day after day and night after night, it tends to make one cynical, and cynicism, particularly when it's premature in life, leads to depression and a lowering of self esteem. When one thinks that human beings are garbage, one comes to the inescapable conclusion, 'I am a human being -- what am I?' " he added, quoting a character from his 1981 novel "The Delta Star" shortly before his suicide.

But Wambaugh's own works have become brighter, for the most part. "As I mellowed with age, or got farther from day-to-day police work, I wrote books that were more consciously entertaining," he said. " '(The Secrets of) Harry Bright' was the exception. I happen to like that book better than any of the other novels, but that one was so dark, I think I had to lighten up, it was all about fathers and sons and death."

That's one reason there was no movie version of "Harry Bright," he continued. "I kept hearing, 'It's too dark, it's too dark.' Maybe after that I started lightening up, since I like to see my stuff go on the screen."

Not that his most recent work has been exactly sunshine. "Echoes in the Darkness" was about the murder of children, and "The Blooding" was about the murder of teenage girls.

A hard man to find

Despite the continuing popularity of his works, Wambaugh was a hard man to track down. His paperback publisher had little information; his hardcover publisher had to dig into its archives for a number. Wambaugh sounded a bit wistful about the whole thing.


"Since the conglomerates have swallowed each other up, they don't even know who the authors are anymore," he said. "In the beginning of my writing career, it was more like a family. Now I can go to New York on a book tour, even with a bestseller, and not even see any of them. That was unheard of in the early days, when I'd go on tour in New York, I'd be invited to people's homes, meet the kids if I hadn't already, and vice versa when they came to California. That doesn't happen anymore."

As a writer, Wambaugh counts Joseph Heller and Truman Capote among his influences, but is not altogether pleased by current developments in the genre of crime writing. "I get a little bit put off by 'true crime' ... when I have enough knowledge of the crimes to know that this story is so loosely based on the actual one that I'm not sure how to get away with calling it 'true crime,' " he said.

"I don't fudge or try to make it better by editorializing or dramatizing, I try to be a real investigative reporter and write it as it happened as best I can. When I recreate dialogue, I base it on something I can corroborate. I met the FBI agent who handled the murder described in Capote's book ("In Cold Blood"), and he had great admiration of what Capote did. There's usually where you'll find your toughest critics, the cops you write about when you do true crime. They nitpick everything."

Police author Wambaugh weighs in on LAPD scandal
March 3, 2000

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