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BOOKS AND AUTHORS Author Discusses Sexual Harassment, Rodney King Case

February 28, 1992

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ When Joseph Wambaugh decided to write a novel with a retired woman cop as the central figure, he went to the source and interviewed female officers on the job.

Without exception, he said, they had stories to tell about sexual harassment - not by criminals but by their fellow male officers.

″I interviewed about two dozen female cops,″ Wambaugh said. ″All of them wanted to talk, and all of them talked about how difficult it was for women to do police work.″

In his new book, ″Fugitive Nights,″ Wambaugh’s protagonist, Breda Burrows, recalls the days when she was a police officer enduring the taunts of male cops, a situation which spurs her early retirement to life as a private investigator in Palm Springs.

″Fugitive Nights″ tells a funny detective story with a sad undertone and much of it has to do with Breda’s role as a woman in a man’s world. Some reviewers have billed the book as Wambaugh’s breakthrough into comedic fiction. He sees it as one of his many commentaries on the foibles of law enforcement - including sexual discrimination.

″It wouldn’t be this way if half of the force consisted of women,″ Wambaugh said. But he noted that only 12 percent of the Los Angeles Police Department’s 8,300 officers are female.

Wambaugh even suggests the Los Angeles department should choose a woman chief to replace the much criticized Daryl Gates.

″At this time in history, they’re looking for a kinder, gentler image of the police force,″ he said. ″The macho image has had its day. ... I’ve always felt that women grow up a lot faster than guys do. And they have common sense.″

Wambaugh, the policeman-turned-author whose best-selling books have looked into the minds of cops for two decades, was interviewed during a book tour for ″Fugitive Nights.″ But he was anxious to talk about the plight of the embattled department he once served and the scandal that has rocked it from top to bottom.

He said he now sees last year’s videotaped police beating of black motorist Rodney King as ″the My Lai of police work,″ an incident of surreal horror without equal.

″I talked to cops all over the city, and the word that kept coming up over and over was ‘surreal.’ The incident was surreal,″ he said of his effort to understand what had happened.

He said he remembered the 1968 My Lai massacre of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops and looked up some old stories about it. He found that soldiers who were at My Lai described that event as surreal.

″As far as I know, this is the one incident where cops ran amuck in such a fashion,″ he said.

He compares the sergeant who was present to Lt. William Calley Jr., the commander at My Lai. As for the officers who stood by, Wambaugh said, ″I think it was so shocking that the other cops standing around were paralyzed.″

He said that like other officers, he saw instances of excessive force during his 14 years with the department. But nothing to match the taped beating.

Wambaugh was an unlikely police officer from the start.

Born in Pittsburgh, Wambaugh was a teen-ager when his family moved to Ontario, Calif., where he attended high school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Los Angeles State University and planned to write.

″But I realized you have to have something to write about,″ he said.

He spotted a newspaper offering a salary of $489 a week, a respectable sum in 1960, for beginning police officers. He signed on and found he liked the work.

Best of all, it gave him something to write about.

″I was getting to see people the way other people don’t see them,″ he said. ″I was in people’s bedrooms in the middle of the night when I was out on a call. There were secrets we were privy to.″

Wambaugh rose to the rank of sergeant, and, while on the force, he earned his master’s degree in English, figuring he would teach after retirement.

But in 1968 he tried writing police-inspired stories. After three years of rejections, he produced a winner. ″The New Centurions,″ his first book, was accepted for publication. He followed with ″The Blue Knight″ and ″The Onion Field,″ one of his biggest best sellers.

Wambaugh left the force in 1974 to write full time. ″Fugitive Nights″ is his 13th book and his ninth work of fiction. Now he’s looking for a true crime story.

″It’s time to be a journalist again,″ he said. But forget about such serial killers as Jeffrey Dahmer. He’s after an interesting story - a story that will sell, not a gruesome one.

″People will pay a lot of money to be scared,″ Wambaugh said, ″but they won’t pay a dime to be disgusted.″