Wambaugh on today's LAPD

WambaughAuthor and former Los Angeles cop Joseph Wambaugh, writing on the Times op-ed page, calls Rossmore Avenue his favorite L.A. street and only partly because James Ellroy lives on it. "It's retro and romantic for anyone with powerful remembrances of things past," he says. "One sees ghosts on Rossmore, Mae West for one, sashaying out of the Ravenswood to a waiting limo and two hunky escorts for a night at the Cocoanut Grove. I used to patrol that street when I was a young cop assigned to Wilshire Division. And nobody ever punched me in the mouth on Rossmore Avenue." He also reports on his research for the LAPD novel that Ellroy suggested he write.

I began interviewing police officers, 54 of them this time, over dinner and drinks, usually four at a time and segregated by gender so that women would feel freer to complain about male cops and vice versa. For fellow writers interested in my method, I can tell you that female officers are cheaper dates. It takes, on average, 2 1/2 drinks to get male cops talking freely. Women will unload after smelling the cork. And the women are not afraid to express powerful emotions, the stuff of storytelling.

Soon I found myself at Hollywood station, and it was eerie to see there on the staircase wall a huge photo of the onion field where Hollywood Division Officer Ian Campbell was murdered long ago and about which I wrote a nonfiction book. And it was a bit strange riding in a radio car, more often called a "shop" these days because of the shop number printed across the roof for easy identification by the police helicopter, now called an "airship." There, separating the driver and passenger, was a computer screen with calls assigned and answered by young people who grew up computer savvy.

Thankfully, there also was the familiar and comforting sound of police communications voices, and the beep that precedes urgent calls. I can say that at least one of Chief Bill Bratton's policies is universally acclaimed by today's cops. Most hot calls are now assigned Code 3 which calls for light bars and sirens in order to discourage adrenaline-overloaded cops from blowing through stop signs without them. Thus, the chief has introduced a bit of New York to Los Angeles. There are sirens sounding all over town, and the young coppers love it. Let's face it, driving Code 3 is fun.

After the jump, what today's officers don't love.

What they do not love is the federal consent decree that subjects them to mountains of paperwork, mind-numbing audits and oppressive oversight. This bureaucratic overkill devours time that should be spent doing what LAPD cops have always done better than anyone: catching lawbreakers.

They understand that the old days of LAPD rock 'n' rule are over, but, at the same time, they are worried that constant criticism, fueled by intimidating layers of oversight, will turn the LAPD from the proactive model that every law enforcement agency in the nation once copied to a hobbled corps of hand-waving, risk-aversive PR persons in blue.

They believe that, although it is an unhealthy thing for the public to fear the police, it is a healthy thing for criminals to fear the police, and now that healthy fear has been emasculated. The number of gun attacks on LAPD officers this year lends credence to their argument.

But there is one thing that has not changed, and if the morale of the LAPD breaks down so far that change comes even here, I pity the City of Angels. It is this: Doing good police work is fun.


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