The first of Joseph Wambaugh’s novels that I read was The Choirboys. I carried it with me when called for jury duty in 1981. At the time, I was waiting for the results of a civil service examination that would qualify me to become a police officer. For the next few months, while I was subjected to a background investigation, a couple of interviews, a polygraph test, and medical and ophthalmological examinations, my nose was in one Wambaugh novel after another. They were my training manuals.
His first book was published a decade before I became a cop, while the author was still a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. His career in law enforcement entitled him to write about his former profession with the authenticity and wry humor no other writer has been able to match. Wambaugh was also responsible for the success of several popular television series and movies attuned to the dangers of policing and inspired by the lives of real people.
There’s no latitude to fear death when you’re a cop. Hesitation prevents you from doing your job. During my 25 years in law enforcement, someone in my department was severely injured or killed in the line of duty every few years. A couple of times, I was among the first responders when an officer was murdered. Cruisers with flashing beacons rapidly queued on the freeway after Joe Rich was shot by a felon he’d pulled over for a traffic violation. A grizzled old cop with “Lounge Lizard” stenciled on his helmet observed the aftermath as he sat next to me inside a tiny Bell helicopter that was too far away and too slow to be the first at scene when the officer-in-trouble call was aired that night. The pilot and I were intensely and quietly relieved to be overhead when the killer was apprehended hours later.
A few months before my retirement, while investigating a robbery, I happened to be nearby when a police dispatcher reported shots were being exchanged by the manager of a carryout and a teenage thug. I arrived at the shooting scene in tandem with the uniformed officers. After sorting through the chaos, summoning the crime scene detective, and handling the necessary interviews, I tried to joke with one of the young patrol officers about being shot on a robbery call right before reaching retirement. The allusion was completely lost on him. I briefly described the conclusion of The Blue Knight, in which an old cop is shot and killed during a drugstore robbery his final day on the job. Later, I sent the 34-year-old patrolman my yellowed paperback copies of it and two of Wambaugh’s other early novels.
At 70, Wambaugh’s affection for and intimate understanding of the men and women of the LAPD is undiminished. I summoned my nerve to send him a fan letter a year ago, the first I’d ever written. He replied with a kind note congratulating me on my retirement. I shared it with a friend’s father, a former police administrator who was delighted to notice that he shared a badge number with the novelist, whose LAPD shield was embossed on the note card.
For many months after I retired, I was content to unwind in quiet seclusion. I was surprised to hear myself begin to laugh. Wambaugh’s latest novel appeared in bookstores, and I didn’t pick it up. Getting away was therapeutic.
My fondness for Wambaugh, however, eventually overcame my aversion to all things police-related. I borrowed Hollywood Station from the library, and before I finished the first chapter, I was laughing out loud. He has an uncanny way of staying in touch with active police officers in order to portray them as the comically heroic figures they often are. He also possesses an unusual and apparently genuine respect for female cops.
However, it must have been the streak of subversiveness that runs through Wambaugh’s writing that incited my old partner and me to quip, as we patrolled our inner-city precinct on those sweltering summer evenings back in the ‘80s, “We aren’t prejudiced; we despise everyone equally.” It takes a good measure of humor to cope with the enormous drunken prostitute prancing behind the boot joint who raises her skirt to flash the police helicopter crew, or the little children who burn a cross in their classmate’s dusty front yard, or the man who pulls a bongo drum and a dead dog from a trash can after his girlfriend tosses his belongings out of their apartment.
I needed Wambaugh to remind me.