Joe Wambaugh: Marine Turned Cop Turned Bestselling Author
By Fred Dickey
Sept. 26, 2016
If I could write crime books like Joe Wambaugh does, I’d give a week off my life.
(Oops. I just glanced at the calendar. Change that to a day.)
By that bit of nonsense, you realize I think he’s really good. So have millions of readers.
Wambaugh is now 79 and living in a big house high on Point Loma that he earned one paperback at a time; actually, a lot of paperbacks in bunches. He chooses not to write any more, which is the reader’s loss but his choice.
He and his wife also have a home in Rancho Mirage, which she prefers. That’s down by Palm Springs, and where rich old golfers from Des Moines, Iowa and retired celebrities hang out.
Wambaugh’s blue-collar family emigrated from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvia when he was a teenager. He showed me a picture on his wall of the area where he lived back in that city’s days of smoke, fire and steel. Grim. If Dante had a camera, he would have included that photo in his “Inferno.”
He’s also come a long way from the time he wore the blue in Los Angeles, back when rioting Watts became a place to run and duck.
But in some ways, he’s the same guy.
You won’t see his picture in any of the grip-’n-grin society photo spreads because he sees himself as a “recluse.” That’s weird, because a standard-issue recluse is someone who dislikes people and often gives reason for the feeling to be reciprocated. A recluse peeks through the curtain at the UPS driver.
Wambaugh is a friendly, humorous fellow who, if he chose, would be a hit at any of those charity bashes he avoids. Oh, well, the glitterati won’t miss what they don’t know.
They would also be disappointed that he’s not particularly interested in them. He would rather swap stories with an off-duty cop in a streetside place that sells sandwiches and Bud Lite on tap. The music would not be Justin Bieber.
If I can write his life half as well as Joe Wambaugh has written others’, this could be interesting.
Wambaugh was first a Marine, then joined the Los Angeles Police Department at 23 in 1960. He served 14 years and picked up a master’s degree along the way.
Back then, L.A. officers had a reputation as folks you didn’t want to mess with. It was a place where a prisoner might have “fallen” on the way to the station. Minorities were quite aware that getting on the bad side of cops might put them on the down side, if you get my meaning. Whites didn’t get a pass, either. They quickly learned the value of the word “sir” when being dressed down by a cop.
Unless he was too young and naïve to know better, Wambaugh says the department was pretty close to corruption-free. He remembers the Patton-like chief Bill Parker saying, “If I ever hear of any of you accepting one dime in graft, I will personally see to it that you end up in San Quentin.”
Including the shiny apple on the produce stand?
“Yeah. The closest we came to corruption, we’d get free food in greasy spoons and then leave a tip. That's it.”
How about departmental racism back in that day?
“Sure. At first it was terrible because Parker wouldn't permit black patrol officers to work with anyone but other black officers. That was outrageous. Latinos, whites, Asians all worked together, mixed. Parker thought black officers worked better together. I was shocked, but that soon changed.”
Wambaugh had his growing pains. He recalls acting on a tip from a snitch (“that we were stupid enough to trust”) about the residence of a big dope dealer. He and an equally young, crime-busting partner decided to raid the place. They crept up to a bedroom window and discerned a man and a woman in bed.
“We believed there was this guy with all that dope and a gun, and I'll be goddamned, so we decided — the window was wide open — we decided to go in. We did it. I mean fast, and we tumbled down through the window. The woman screams. The man jumps up. Grabbing for my gun. Turn on the flashlight. We're on the bed of a couple. We walk across the bed, tumble off, the two of us. They're terrified ...”
You’ve probably figured out by now it was the wrong address. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be telling the story. The couple were so grateful they weren’t desperados, they didn’t report them.
If they had, Wambaugh might have started his writing career much earlier, and might be known today for “true romance” stories.
“That's the stupidest thing I ever saw a cop do, and I did it,” he says. The chagrin is now mellowed, but still there.
Chief Parker believed cops shouldn’t be writers, at least not without censorship. And he had a rule to enforce it. Wambaugh says he would have been fired if a novel he wrote on the sly, “The New Centurions,” had been published during Parker’s regime. But by then, 1970, Ed Davis was chief and could hardly fire a cop who had suddenly made the bestseller list.
Wambaugh left the LAPD in 1974 as a sergeant. The royalties were rolling in, and it became awkward to write a ticket and an autograph at the same time.
He jumped into a writing career that produced 21 books, fiction and nonfiction, and several TV and movie scripts. Asked how many books he has sold, I watched him mentally calculate and then give up.
“Millions, many,” he says.
He loves cops. He loves cop humor and loads his books with it, although to some readers it might cause some PC queasiness. They should probably read a different book.
He loved the screw-ups, but usually if the results were humorous, not tragic, as some can be. He relates an incident dating back to the day when DUI was on a moral level with smoking: We knew it was wrong and dangerous, but the time had not come to deal with it.
Wambaugh tells the story as a fond memory from another day: “I had a guy working for me when I was a young sergeant. He's dead now. His name was Roxie. Roxie Rupe. He’d been an Air Force pilot in three wars.
“One night, late, Roxie was driving home, off duty. Hammered. He was on the freeway and he gets in a road rage with some other guy. They pulled off the road to duke it out. Can you imagine? It was 3 o’clock in the morning. The other guy, Roxie claimed, jumped out first.
“(Later,) Roxie tells me, ‘Well, Sarge, the guy comes at me and there’s nothing I can do, so I popped him. He flips over the center divider.’
“‘What did you do then?’ I ask Roxie. He says, ‘I’m gonna get the hell out of there, but suddenly, two California Highway Patrol units roll up. One goes over to where the other guy is to revive him. The other guy tells me to stay where I am.
“‘The CHP guy who went over to the guy I decked comes running back to the other one and says, ‘You ain't gonna believe this. My guy’s LAPD.’ The guy with me says, ‘So’s mine.’”
Wambaugh became a very successful writer by employing his eye (and ear) for the bizarre and the funny that happen in that blue world.
He takes a stab at explaining officers’ unique brand of humor: “It's defensive. It's a defense against the terrible things they see. The civilian might say, ‘How could you find something funny in that horrible situation?’ Well, they do it to defend their own mental health.
“I say there are three qualities — I’ve always said this — that a good cop needs: common sense, a sense of humor and a bit of compassion. And don't get badge-heavy, don't get hardened and don't get cynical.”
What do you mean by badge-heavy?
“It means that when a cop gets a couple of years on the job and starts throwing his weight around. Not just to the public, but he starts throwing it around period, even in domestic situations.”
At home, you mean.
“Yeah. Badge-heavy. We called it the John Wayne syndrome at LAPD. That's something you have to guard against.
“The last shot in (a TV series he created) shows the cop sitting on the bed at home after his wife has taken her clothes and gone out the door forever. He's sitting on the bed and for the first time the tough guy starts, like, catching his breath, and next thing you know he's weeping, weeping like a child, as the camera pulls back. That's the result of the John Wayne syndrome.”
How is that correctable?
“It has to be addressed in training. … Do not throw your weight around because you're now a police officer. The opposite should be true. Be more humble than you were before you put the badge on.”
Do departments do a good enough job of addressing that?
“I don’t know. I hope so. It’s true of men and women. I know of two women cops who killed themselves when I was in the department.”
Well, how about women cops?
“I was always a champion of women cops while I was still on the job. I always thought they can do certain things better than men because they're more verbal, usually, and they can talk situations to a peaceful conclusion better.
“But toss out all that nonsense about female cops getting out there and going rough and tumble with men. No. That does not work. They can't do it. It will never work despite the (BS) you see on TV and in movies.”
Tell us about criminals.
“Criminals, ah. The thing that I learned about criminals was what a sociopath is, and discovering that maybe 95 percent of career criminals are sociopaths, people without a conscience.
“I was brought up a Catholic school kid. I had three grandparents from Ireland. A conscience was drilled into us. We had guilty feelings about everything. Irish Catholic kids suffered the same fate as Jewish kids. We were made to feel guilty for getting up in the morning.”
He makes the point about sociopathy by citing a police interview with Jimmy Lee Smith, one of the two cop-killers Wambaugh wrote about in his true-crime bestseller “The Onion Field.”
“The detective is interrogating him and mentions something about how Smith should feel bad (about the murder), and Jimmy Lee Smith in all sincerity looks at the detective and says, ‘I think that stuff about feeling bad is made up by white folks to make guys like me stay down.’”
Career criminals don’t live long, do they?
How smart is the average?
“Crafty, if they last very long.”
Did you ever run into any criminals you liked?
“Yeah, sure. Usually, we tended to like our snitches, but you can’t like them too much.”
We hear a lot about the “blue wall,” which is the tendency of cops to defend each other and to hang out only with other officers. When you hear of a “cop bar,” you know some saloon keeper is tapping into that tendency.
Wambaugh objects to the idea that the “blue wall” extends to officers covering up for rogue cops in their midst. “No cop is going to go to prison to cover up another cop’s crimes,” he says.
However, he completely understands the tendency to seek the company of those you share danger with, can swap jokes and stories with, without being accused of being insensitive, and for unity against those whom you think cast you as thugs and killers with badges and guns.
Those are two reasons the “blue wall” exists. A third might apply to us citizens — a place to find safety behind.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2016, The San Diego Union-Tribune