Joseph Wambaugh earned the title “father of the modern police novel” in 1971 when he published “The New Centurions,” a raw, emotional look at the experiences of a class of new Los Angeles Police Department cadets in the years leading up to the 1965 Watts riots. No matter who had written it, “The New Centurions” would be a masterpiece, as are Wambaugh’s other police books, including “The Onion Field,” a nonfiction account of the kidnapping of two LAPD officers. But Wambaugh drew special attention because of his day job: At the time “The New Centurions” was published, Wambaugh was a detective sergeant in the LAPD. His unique experiences helped usher in a new era in police storytelling.
In the course of researching my series on policing and pop culture, Wambaugh and I had several long conversations. This transcript of our second interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did that process [of cops writing scripts for “Dragnet" and “Adam-12"] work?
The department, as I told you, officially approved all of [“Dragnet" creator and star Jack] Webb’s scripts if Webb wanted to continue having the special cooperation of the LAPD. Webb’s shows got LAPD services that nobody else has ever gotten before or since. And that was the price they paid. They submitted their scripts to a lieutenant at public relations, Dan Cook, and Dan Cook would read those scripts and red-pencil them, send them back. [Wambaugh’s friend Steve] Downing told me Webb used to b—- like mad when he’d get his scripts back with changes demanded by Dan Cook. But he’d do it. He’d change it.
Was the deal that Webb had to accept every change that Dan Cook sent in? Or were there things that were just suggestions rather than demands?
From what I recall from talking to Dan myself, I knew Dan, Webb pretty much toed the line. He didn’t like it. And he’d cuss and fume and all of that. But he pretty much did it, because as I say, LAPD gave him carte blanche. They could do anything. They could shoot wherever they wanted. They could have cops for extras, and police vehicles and equipment, and then they paid cops who were extras, not extras, they paid cops who were actually, as I recall, the cops who did something significant in the show did get paid. So that was good for the cops as well, because it was off-duty, the cops were off-duty when they were on camera. But no, Webb toed the line, as far as I remember.
It’s interesting hearing about all the logistical help, because that must have been just a huge help with permits and probably a savings if they got to use police vehicles.
Particularly with permits. With the LAPD totally involved, permits were a piece of cake. And Webb saved a lot of money by submitting to that kind of administrative review by the LAPD public relations office. Public information is actually what it was called. Public information office. And, you know, that’s when I made the decision, when I started writing my first novel, “The New Centurions,” I made the decision to send it out without seeking department approval because I saw what they did to Webb and his scripts, and I knew damn well they weren’t going to approve even the first 10 pages of my novel, because I was really telling the truth about police work. So I thought “I’ll take a chance, even though I know my career is on the line. I’ll take a chance,” when I sent it out.
Now, you said that you thought about maybe writing a script for “Dragnet” or for “Adam-12.” How did you go from thinking about that to deciding you wanted to write “The New Centurions.”
I was working on my MA, part time, and when I got my MA, I decided, well, hell, writing a script would be terrific and I’d maybe make some money like Steve Downing. But is that what I really want to do with myself as an aspiring writer? Remember, I was an English major with an MA, probably the only cop in the history of the LAPD who had an MA in literature, and I thought, “Nah, I’m going to leapfrog. I’m going to go for broke. I’m going to write a book, a novel. And hell, if it gets published, I know my career will be at risk, I know it’ll never make any money, because first novels, over the transom, never make any more. But it would be such a great honor to have a book published and to tell the first really true story about modern policing in an urban environment.” So that’s when I decided to do it. I never did write the Webb screenplay.
[After “The New Centurions" came out] you mentioned that [LAPD chief] Ed Davis had suggested that maybe you look for a new job. Did you speak to him directly?
No, he spoke to me through the press. I know he made one statement to the LA Times, “Well, I hope Sgt. Wambaugh makes a lot of money with this book, because he’ll need it. He won’t have a job.” And that’s when the press just swarmed in on my behalf and waved the First Amendment in Davis’s face. You know, Ed Davis had a nickname around the police department. We all called him “Crazy Ed.” And he later became a state senator, California state senator, and served for a long time. And he had pretty extreme views, to say the least, and so he had someone read my novel, and it was just, well, it was just red-penciled to death. There’s no way that I could have ever gotten it published. Did I tell you the story about Jack Webb reading “The New Centurions”?
Oh, this is a good story. I should have told you this. This is a good story. When the news hit, and it hit big, all over the country, that this LAPD detective sergeant had written a novel that was the main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, now that was a big deal back in 1970. … So I had galley proofs, since the book wasn’t officially in print, I had galley proofs and I got a call, a very hush-hush call, at the detective squadroom. And it was from a spokesman for Jack Webb, and I can’t even remember who it was. But he said to me “Mr. Webb said get him a copy of your manuscript or page proofs, and if he believes that you’ve done a credible job of presenting the Los Angeles Police Department as you know it, he will come to your defense, and that will be very meaningful with your chief of police.” And I thought “Wow! Okay!”
So I grabbed this copy of the page proofs, the galley proofs, and my partner and I jumped in our car and drove straight to the Sunset Strip, where Webb’s office was. And I didn’t get to see him. But I did get to drop off the page proofs. And then went back to my duties, and a week passed, and another week passed, and then I got another phone call from that same person. And said that my page proofs are at Mr. Webb’s and that I could come and pick them up, and that’s all I heard. So, jumped in our car again, drove back to the Sunset Strip, and went to the front desk and said I wanted to see Mr. Webb, gave them my name, badged him. The security guy. And he said “Oh, I have a parcel here for you.” And he handed me my page proofs wrapped up. And I said “Well, does Mr. Webb want to see me?” And he said “No, I was just told to give you this package.” So we went back out to the car, I said “Jesus, this thing is heavy!” I told my partner “This is way heavier then when I dropped it off.” We went back to the car, and I opened it up wondering what made it so heavy. And what made it so heavy was about 10,000 paper clips, big paper clips, stuck on every line in the novel where Webb took exception, I guess, and worried that it was not “Adam-12” and it wasn’t “Dragnet.” That’s why the damn thing weighed so much, was all those paper clips. So I just, you know, I just scraped off all the paper clips, threw them in the trash, and gave up on Mr. Webb.
Do you think he had come to believe that the vision of the LAPD that he presented was not sanitized, that it was real?
No, he was a smart man. He knew that it was. But he also knew that what I was presenting to the American public was something that would undermine his sanitized portrayal, and it did. Almost every review at the time would say “This ain’t ‘Dragnet.'” Or “‘Adam-12,’ this is not.” Something like that. Every one of them began like that. He knew that my book was going to cause a bit of harm to the image that he had worked so hard to maintain, really, that sanitized version. …
I was totally unfamiliar with all of the attention that I got. Of course. This was absolutely new to me. And doing PR myself, and suddenly being asked to go on the “Today Show,” or the “Tonight Show,” which I did many times. All that sort of thing. And the phone ringing to the distraction of every detective in my squadroom. All of that, all of that was new, and I made mistakes, because I’d get baited by the press with the “Adam-12” “Dragnet” image. I would get baited constantly. …
I’ll never forget, I had occasion to go to some big publicity event in Hollywood one night, and there was a reception line, and I was meeting people, and one of the people there was one of the stars of “Adam-12,” it was Kent McCord. … And he was furious with me. And I was stunned. And he said something to the effect that “We’re trying to make a living, and we’re trying to do the best show we can do, and we do our best and then you come out and you diss us and you bad-mouth us and you ridicule our show. That’s our work! That’s our livelihood!”
And I was stunned, you know, I didn’t know that I was doing that. And I must have mumbled some kind of an apology, and a producer came over to me, a producer of “Adam-12,” at that time, and he softened it a bit, but not a hell of a lot, and said, “You know, you realize that you’re in a position to do irreparable harm to our show?” And I said “Holy [s—], well, that’s the last thing I want to do, I’m sorry.” “Adam-12” and “Dragnet” have been really good for the image of cops all over America. That version, that image of cops has been helpful for public relations. I said, “I didn’t mean to do that.”
You mentioned that “Adam-12” and “Dragnet” were useful for public relations. But as we’ve also discussed, the psychological approach that you took to storytelling, and to looking at, as you’ve put it, the way the job acts on the cop also opens up a different discussion about what police work does to officers. Do you think those two kinds of storytelling are in tension with each other? Do you think they can both coexist, or are they sort of fundamentally in conflict with each other?
Well, they have a different audience. I didn’t presuppose that I was writing my book for people who were in love with the Jack Webb cop image. I thought I was writing for a totally different audience. And I was. Things that happen in my books would never, ever be portrayed by Webb. And by the way, I was told by Steve Downing that Jack Webb wanted to make his shows grittier and more true to life, psychologically, showing all the damage that police work does to cops. The premature cynicism, the constant psychological bombardment from the worst of people and from ordinary people at their worst. All of that, he wanted to do some of that, but he couldn’t if he wanted the cooperation that he always got from the LAPD. I don’t want to blame anything on Jack Webb. He was a very smart guy. Probably one of the richest guys in Hollywood at that time.
When you did make the decision to leave [the LAPD], how did you know it was time?
Davis was gone by then, I think he was a state senator at that time. I just decided that I couldn’t handle it anymore, I couldn’t handle the pressure. I had written “The New Centurions,” “The Blue Knight.” “The New Centurions,” of course, became a movie with George C. Scott, who was the biggest movie star of the day after “Patton,” and then “The Blue Knight,” which was one of the vehicles that allowed William Holden to come back, big, in his career. “The Blue Knight” was a four-hour miniseries, the first one, I think, ever produced in America, and William Holden starred in it with Lee Remick. So I had those two things, and I had written “The Onion Field,” my first nonfiction.
I just had too much on my plate from having written those three books while I was still a working detective who was too insecure to leave his hood. My hood being the LAPD. It wasn’t money. I could see that I had enough money forever. But it was, I don’t know, I guess I thought maybe I was successful because I was a cop, not because I was a pretty good writer. And I was afraid to leave. I didn’t want to lose my identity as a working cop. But finally it became too much, and I just had to go. And I wanted to write “The Choirboys,” and I knew that when I wrote “The Choirboys,” it would be very hard to maintain my job, because “The Choirboys” was absolutely outrageous black comedy. Dark, dark comedy that ends up as a tragedy. I knew that I couldn’t write that book I envisioned and stay a cop with the LAPD.
There was something I wanted to follow up with you on about “Police Story.” We’d talked for a while about how after the show had been running for a couple of years, you started getting more pressure from NBC to have more drama, in quotation marks, by which they actually meant action. Did you think there was something in particular that spurred those requests?
Well, there’s only one bottom line in Hollywood. And it’s money. And the network always felt that one had to retreat to the tried and true money-making techniques in telling a police story. And that would be lots of action, chases, fights, shootings, sirens. Sirens when you didn’t even need sirens, if you ever notice on those stupid shows. A siren would be blasting, someone drives through an alley where there’s not a car for a mile. Who are they trying to alert with the sirens? And the networks loved the sirens. Jesus, I’ll never forget that. But anyway, it was that. They were convinced that those were the things that made money, not this Irish art theater stuff that I told you about.
Do you feel like they bought the show thinking they could turn it into something else? Or do you think they bought the pitch and thought they wanted it and then decided they wanted something else?
They bought the show based on my popularity at the time, frankly. … David Gerber was the man behind “Police Story,” not me. David Gerber was the guy who made it work, who sold it. We decided, jointly, though, that we’re really going to give them something different. We’re going to give them an anthology. There had never been anthology on a police show, and there had been damn few anthologies that ever worked in American television. … And we said, well, let’s shoot the works here and try for a police anthology. Because then, each week, with different actors, completely different stories, completely different actors, different characters, we can do whatever we want. We have freedom that nobody’s ever had with police drama. We can kill the cops, we can make the cops crooks, we can make the cops repulsive, we can make the cops poor, suffering souls, which they are in a lot of experience. We can do all sorts of things that we could never do with a show with continuing characters. So that was our approach, the anthology. And, well, it worked for several years. When it started to cease working, in I guess the fourth year, and that’s when we got those complaints about the Irish Art Theater and let’s have some more good, old-fashioned cop action, that’s when I left the show. I just walked away.
In television and movies, the police almost never shoot someone who isn’t committing a crime or who isn’t actively attacking them. So do you think that creates an expectation that good cops never shoot or hurt somebody accidentally that is impossible for actual cops to live up to?
Yes, absolutely impossible. First of all, if I ever heard of a cop who intentionally wanted to shoot somebody just to shoot somebody, I’d be dealing with a psychotic. I’d want to get handcuffs on him. So do we encounter cops like that? No.
But we do get into situations as cops where absolute, mortal terror makes a cop fire his gun a split second before he should have if he were the impassive, stoic individual that really doesn’t exist in the world. If he could have waited that extra second. But fear kept him from waiting. Okay, that cop still could be liable for prosecution on involuntary manslaughter if it was done without due caution on the cop’s part. So the cop’s in this incredibly tense situation all the time when guns are involved or the perception of guns is involved.
Do you think pop culture creates an unfair expectation both for officers and communities by giving us a narrative where all good cops are stoic, all good cops never make mistakes, all good cops never shoot anybody accidentally or out of fear? That seems to create an ideal that’s very hard for officers to live up to, because obviously it’s possible to be a good cop, and make a mistake, and shoot someone, again, as you said, out of that mortal terror. But it also seems to create an expectation for civilians that is disappointed sometimes.
That was more true back in the day that we’re talking about, the Jack Webb day, than today. I don’t know. Are there cop shows now, and I’m not an expert on today’s cop shows, believe me. Are there cop shows now where the cops do work as sanitized as they did in the Jack Webb day? I don’t think so, are there?. … I’ve never been interested in emotionless cops. Never. I didn’t meet too many, really. When you sit in a car with a guy for 10 hours a day, you know, you’re going to get to know him. And there’s the implicit understanding that you have to put your a– on the line for him, physically, if it comes to that. Your very life. And you might not even like him. But you must do that. It’s part of the deal you make. And in that environment, emotions come out, whether you want them to or not.
So why do you think the image of the emotionless cop appeals to audiences. Does it make them feel safe?
Yeah. Isn’t it nice to think that there’s guardian angels out there who aren’t as weak as you are? And who you can always depend on? And who will be your heroes? That’s comforting, isn’t it?