In a ceremony held recently in Los Angeles, novelist James Ellroy was presented with the Los Angeles Police Historical Society’s Jack Webb Award. Ellroy is the author of 16 books, including such bestsellers as The Cold Six Thousand, American Tabloid, and L.A. Confidential. A film adaptation of his novel The Black Dahlia, directed by Brian De Palma, will be released in 2006. Ellroy recently spoke with NRO’s Jack Dunphy about crime, cops, and conservatism.
Jack Dunphy: What is the Jack Webb Award?
James Ellroy: Jack Webb was of course the creator of the Dragnet television show and the television auteur of the 1950s. It was a felicitous meeting between Jack Webb and [then LAPD chief] William Parker that made Parker believe Webb could be exploited to put forth a positive image of the LAPD. Except for Parker himself, Jack Webb was the man most responsible for bringing this positive image to the world at large. The LAPD Historical Society honors civilians, often in the arts, sometimes in politics, who have served to advance the gloriously deserved positive image of the Los Angeles Police Department. As a writer heavily influenced by Jack Webb, particularly his 1958 book The Badge, which turned my life around, I’m honored to be one of this year’s honorees.
Dunphy: You have a long history with the LAPD, but it wasn’t always a friendly one.
Ellroy: No, but never an acrimonious or a bitter one, either. During my well-documented and often-extolled criminal career I was never more than a misdemeanant. I would drive around drunk, I would shoplift. Yeah, I would break into houses once in a while, but my one burglary arrest was kicked down to trespassing thanks to the ministrations of a kindly LAPD officer at Wilshire Station. It was odd, but even in the politically polarized and charged atmosphere of the 60s and 70s I never felt acrimonious toward the LAPD. And I always acknowledged, even at the height of my misbehavior, that I was the one doing wrong, not the guys who were arresting me and throwing me in the pokey.
Dunphy: Did you ever receive any rough treatment at the hands of the police?
Ellroy: In 1966, when I was 18, I was popped for shoplifting a bottle of wine at the Vons Market at 1st and Western in L.A. The store manager detained me in the parking lot and called the LAPD. Before they got there I took off running, and from behind me I dimly saw an LAPD cruiser in the distance. I thought I could outrun the cops. I was mistaken. Two patrol units come in, throw me down on somebody’s lawn, and kick my ass with beavertail saps. I got some bruises but no lasting damage. A rather amused middle-aged sergeant picked me up, dusted me off, smiled at me and said, “Okay, kid, why did we kick your ass?” And I said, “Well, because I stole the booze.” He says, “Nah, kid, think that over.” So I thought about it for about ten seconds and I said, Because I ran? And he said, “Yeah.” And guess what: I never ran again, and I never got my ass kicked again. And it was instructive. There was a civil contract between the police and street tools like me. This was my first painful lesson in it, and I learned. And it’s a good story 39 years later.
Dunphy: Do you think the same contract between cops and criminals is still observed?
Ellroy: No. Since Rodney King, which was an event blown grossly out of proportion by a biased media, police are afraid to conduct business as usual in Los Angeles for fear of censure within the LAPD, censure in the media, and fear of a lawsuit. If you look at the entire Rodney King incident in context and in real time, you see that Rodney King had two companions in the car, both of them black. They submitted willingly and were led out of the frame. Rodney King charged several times and was thrown down and got up again and again, took a Taser from Sergeant Stacy Koon, kept on coming and finally took the 56 blows from batons that, absent context and in slow motion, look terrible. In full-blown context it looks like nothing but a justified response to a suspect who would not submit. I think most people not schooled in the street and the realities of police work think the cops are supposed to engage dangerous suspects in something like one-on-one fights like you might see on television, and of course it doesn’t work that way.
Dunphy: What was your reaction to the political response after the acquittal of the involved officers and the filing of federal charges?
Ellroy: It was double jeopardy. They were cleared fair and square. If it were not a politically charged climate at the time, if it were not an unpopular, as perceived by the media, verdict, it would not have happened.
Dunphy: How have your views of cops in general and the LAPD in particular changed over the years?
Ellroy: Many of my friends, and some of my very best friends, are members of the LAPD. I see the LAPD as a big, tormented giant coming to grips with authoritarianism in a radically changing and increasingly polarized society. Since William Parker took over in 1950 the LAPD’s march forward has been almost entirely progressive. When Parker was making his intemperate remarks about minorities, the entire Headquarters Burglary Division of the Chicago Police Department was being indicted for criminal charges, i.e. suborning burglary and fencing stolen goods. It comes down to aesthetics. You have on the one hand esprit de corps and the need to maintain order, which is often prosaic, occasionally violent, and often has to do with the curtailing of crime committed by minority members, juxtaposed against big social issues like the historical injustices shown to blacks in this country. When you see something like the out-of-context beating of Rodney King, the drama of it holds much greater weight than the reality of good cops doing their job.
Dunphy: What is your opinion of the federal consent decree imposed on the LAPD?
Ellroy: It has demoralized the LAPD. It is based on the specious rhetoric that attended the Rodney King beating, the ‘92 riots, and the Rampart scandal, which I’ve always characterized as a stick of dynamite with a wet fuse. Rampart is another of these misperceived criminal conspiracies. It’s really the story of a handful of rogue, criminal cops who ratted out a wider number of untainted cops to save their own skins. And the entire event blew out of proportion into a media event that most people took to represent large-scale endemic corruption in the LAPD. In reality it wasn’t that. Cops are afraid to do their jobs now. There are nuisance suits filed routinely on officers who bruise the pinkies of violent street suspects, and they all have to be dealt with through the civilian complaint process. This wastes time and diverts energy from the real business of police work.
Dunphy: You’re a screenwriter as well as an author. Both publishing and show business are dominated by people of the Left. How do your politics affect your interaction with the people in these businesses?
Ellroy: What shocks people is when they find out that I’m not a liberal. When you don’t hold to the liberal orthodoxy in publishing and films, people are shocked. And they take that oh-how-can-you-be-that tack. Or they may take that how-can-you-be-so-uncool tack. Or they turn out to be not so much closet conservatives, but closet non-liberals. Many of my friends in both publishing and Hollywood are like that. They’re not conservatives, but they go nowhere near the far fringes of liberalism typified by people like Michael Moore.
During Bill Clinton’s second term, as the Lewinsky scandal raged, I was at Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills. I was standing outside waiting for a friend when Judge Kenneth Starr got out of a chauffeur-driven Town Car right in front of me. He was with a woman I presumed was his wife, not a 22-year-old White House intern, and as he got out our eyes met and I smiled. He smiled back at me, and as he walked by me he stuck out his hand, and I shook his hand and I said, “Your Honor.” And that was it. Here we were in Beverly Hills, and I was the only person within five miles who both recognized him and approved of him.
Dunphy: But you’ve also been critical of some on the Right.
Ellroy: I just get tired of the shout-fests on cable television, all the screaming from both sides. I was doing a gig in Monterey once, and we got into a discussion of law and order. I said there was a rabble out there: abortion-clinic bombers, anti-capitalist paint-throwers, the Klan, the militias, militant homosexuals. I said these people had to be impeded, interdicted and suppressed in order to maintain a lawful society. The audience didn’t know how to react because I was attacking lunatic fringe groups on both the Left and the Right and wrapping them up with one big bow and saying, Stop these people. People on the Left and the Right have an obligation to disavow the kooks on their own side. Everyone should take note of Peggy Noonan’s behavior. She’s charming, reasonable, and she knows how to be conciliatory without giving up her soul.
Dunphy: This year we saw the acquittal of Michael Jackson, which followed the acquittal of Robert Blake, which followed by ten years the acquittal of O. J. Simpson. Do you see common threads in these cases?
Ellroy: Yes: the reluctance on the part of the juries to simply exercise their common sense. The case against O. J. was locked down and inviolate. The prosecution erred and over-exposited the DNA evidence. And they couldn’t compete with the drama of the historical mistreatment of blacks, the aesthetic of it, even though it had absolutely no place in that investigation or in that trial. I think O. J. has entirely redefined the concept of reasonable doubt. Nowadays, juries demand the gun in the hand. How many of those cases do you have? Nearly everything in police work is theoretical, suppositional and circumstantial. The Robert Blake jurors were asked during voir dire if they could convict on a very strong circumstantial case. They said they would, but ultimately they refused to convict because there was no smoking gun. And that’s a perversion of reasonable doubt.
Dunphy: When Simpson was acquitted you were living in Connecticut and did not yet have your friends on the LAPD. What was your reaction when you heard the verdict?
Ellroy: I was having dinner in Zurich, Switzerland, on a book tour. The verdict came in at 7:30 P.M. Zurich time. The entire room, all American tourists, was abuzz at 7:31. Innocent. I was disappointed. I thought the truth had been subverted, injustice had reigned. I was disappointed because I’m the son of a murdered mother and, frankly, I’m vindictive. And I want to see evil punished.
Dunphy: By the time of the Robert Blake case you had several friends on the LAPD, some of whom worked on the case. Did you have the same reaction when Blake was acquitted?
Ellroy: Again, I felt that justice had been badly served and that an evil person had gone scot-free. And Bonny Lee Blakely was by all accounts a bad human being. But that’s just too bad, because you don’t go around killing other human beings, even if you think they’re bad.
Dunphy: Why do you think most cops are conservatives?
Ellroy: Because they know that crime is individual moral default on a epidemic basis, and it needs to be solved, impeded, interdicted, and suppressed on that basis. And because cops daily come up against crimes for which there are no justifications. And it’s their mandate to enact justice in the moment, and it becomes the overwhelming fact in their lives.
Dunphy: You were pleased with the way L.A. Confidential was adapted for the screen. Are you optimistic about the film version of The Black Dahlia?
Ellroy: You take the money and you hope for the best. Sometimes you get lucky. L.A. Confidential was made into a great film. I’m confident that The Black Dahlia will be a great film as well. All of your readers should take great pains to see it next year.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.