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A tip of the hat to Mr. Joseph Wambaugh

Updated: Mar 6, 2020

Must read books for law enforcement and friends of law enforcement.

picture of a police station
Photo by Bruno Martins on Unsplash

In an earlier posting, Berg referred to Ernest Hemingway and his influence on us as youngsters and the nexus between Hemmingway’s young daredevils and young cops. It’s true that certain folk, men and women alike, get a taste for adrenaline and keep reaching for bigger and bigger hits. Wartime or police work, both are fertile ground for the addiction.

In the early 1970s, the era my ill-spent youth… which could be its own blog subject… my girlfriend’s dad was a San Francisco Police Inspector. He was a real-life Dirty Harry, shot twice in the line of duty, and recipient of many citations for valor. I idolized the man, and he didn’t kill me for dating his daughter. He also knew that I had at least a passing interest in police work and he loaned me his copies of Joseph Wambaugh’s first four books. In order they were: The New Centurions, The Blue Knight, The Onion Field, and The Choir Boys.

Those four books went a long way towards igniting my desire to become a lawman. If you have never read them, I strongly recommend them as some of the finest books ever written about the profession of law enforcement. Each in its own way illustrates the joy, sorrow, humor, triumphs, and sometimes self-destruction involved in the life of a cop. If you are a veteran or retired policeman, I suggest that you reread them as I did. Though he wrote them over 40 years ago, you’ll find that Wambaugh was prophetic and timeless in his insights about the job and about policemen. Wambaugh had been a Los Angeles policeman, and he wrote eloquently about what he knew.

I also want to remind people about the era. We had been through a tumultuous decade of war protests and civil rights riots. We as a country behaved shamefully towards the men who went off to fight a war not of their choosing. Images were everywhere of cops in riot gear and clouds of tear gas filling the streets. Pop culture tagged cops as pigs and Blue Meanies, soldiers returning from an “unpopular” war were spit on.

Then along comes Joe Wambaugh making the case that cops in fact are modern centurions and knights; noble men and women protecting and serving their communities, often against tough odds, and always at some cost to mind and body. Four solid best-selling books, all made into motion pictures, gave the American public some appreciation for what it must be like to be on the other side of that thin blue line.

In The New Centurions he writes about a group of rookies as they learn the streets. Gus, small in stature and filled with doubts about his ability to hack it, and his training officer Kilvinski, a master of his profession and street philosopher. I would call him a Street Monster. Some characters die an untimely and violent death, one dies by his own hand. It is a gut-wrenching novel.

The Blue Knight is about a veteran beat cop about to retire. Bumper Morgan (played superbly by George Kennedy in the movie) is the hero and main character of the story. Overweight and long past his prime, Bumper Morgan is a Street Monster none-the-less. He demonstrates curbside justice with an economy of effort throughout the story. Any citizen anywhere would be proud to have Bumper Morgan patrolling his neighborhood!

The Onion Field… even as a young wanna-be-cop this story chilled my shit. A true story about two seasoned Los Angeles cops who ran into a pair of desperate hombres one night in 1963. Working a plain-clothes detail known as a felony car, Officers Campbell and Hettinger stopped a suspicious car with two men. Unknown to the officers the pair had been on an armed robbery spree and both had guns. The bad guys, Greg Powell and Jimmy Smith, got the drop on Officer Campbell and threatened to shoot him if Officer Hettinger didn’t put down his gun. Powell and Smith kidnapped the officers and drove them over the Grapevine to a remote onion field south of Bakersfield. They murdered officer Campbell. Officer Hettinger, through herculean effort escaped with his life that night.

Wambaugh poignantly wrote about the injustice done to Officer Hettinger by the LAPD. Instead of lauding him for his escape and subsequent identification of the murderers, LAPD made him out to be the goat. Showing no compassion, LAPD had Officer Hettinger repeatedly tell roll call briefings about his fatal screw up. Under this pressure Officer Hettinger began a downward spiral. There are many fatal or destructive aspects in the life of a lawman, including one’s personal demons.

The lessons from this incident resounded through the police community for years. Never willingly surrender your gun! Easy to parrot the mantra, but on a warm spring evening in Los Angeles, with no historical cases resulting in the death of the officer(s), would anyone have done any different? God’s truth; nobody knows until confronted with the situation.

The Choir Boys was fiction and had a different feel. Wambaugh filled the book with humor and satire. The characters were caricatures of the flavors cops come in. I laughed out loud when I read it. Wambaugh artfully made the connection between the extreme stresses of the job and the need for gathering with coworkers and blowing off steam. He showed that even disparate characters bond by their experiences and become part of a brotherhood. As far as I know Wambaugh put the term “Choir Practice” into common usage based upon its appearance in this 1975 novel.

In The Choir Boys things move toward the dark side when a tragedy occurs during one very drunken choir practice. A fact of police life is the overindulgence in alcohol when self medicating. They lecture you about it as a rookie cop because senior administrators know the temptation and know all the possible bad outcomes; loss of job, loss of pension, embarrassment and liability for the department, and sometimes loss of life. When your workplace is a pressure cooker steam has to be blown off, or something blows up.

In the thematically linked short stories that Chris and I weave into an anthology these same elements form the arc of the story. Because the events are all based upon real and personal situations, we hope to convey some sights, sounds, smells and emotions to the reader, much as Wambaugh did for us over 40 years ago.

So to Joseph Wambaugh, policeman, detective sergeant, a former Marine, and writer extraordinaire, you inspired us to join the brotherhood way back then, and today you inspire us as writers. We salute you Sir! And Semper Fi!


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