Wambaugh's literary aspirations — he earned a master's degree in English — drew him toward novels instead. The result was "The New Centurions," which followed three LAPD officers from the police academy through the 1965 Watts riots. It's a raw, intimate look at the psychological costs of policing. Because Wambaugh knew the book could never survive the LAPD's approval process, he didn't even bother to submit it.
If Wambaugh thought "The New Centurions" would arrive on shelves quietly, he was mistaken. The Book-of-the-Month Club picked "The New Centurions" as its main selection for January 1971, guaranteeing a wide audience and drawing attention to the novelty of hearing about police work from an actual cop, even through the lens of fiction.
The attention was wonderful for Wambaugh's sales, but it put him in a precarious position. Police chief Ed Davis, himself a technical adviser for "Dragnet" and "Adam-12," was displeased.
"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,' " Wambaugh recalled. "And that's when the press just swarmed in on my behalf and waved the First Amendment."
For a moment, it seemed that Webb himself might come to Wambaugh's defense. Wambaugh recalled receiving a call from one of Webb's employees asking for a copy of the manuscript. Wambaugh eagerly dropped off page proofs — and waited. Two weeks later, the same employee called Wambaugh to let him know he could pick the manuscript up. When he did, Wambaugh found that his book had acquired a new and unexpected heft. Webb had stuck a paper clip next to everything he found objectionable.
"I just scraped off all the paper clips, threw them in the trash, and gave up on Mr. Webb," Wambaugh said. "He knew that what I was presenting to the American public was something that would undermine his sanitized portrayal, and it did."
'The New Centurions" didn't entirely kill heroic portraits of the police. But Wambaugh was one of the most prominent examples of a major shift in Hollywood: Pop culture began taking its inspiration not from the heads of law enforcement agencies, but from individual cops — men who believed policing was important work but also recognized the toll that it took on individual officers.
"The Mod Squad," Aaron Spelling's series about a special unit of young officers who try to solve cases that might remain impenetrable to older, squarer, detectives, grew out of a conversation Spelling had with his friend, Buddy Ruskin, a former member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. When the show premiered in 1968, Spelling positioned "The Mod Squad" as an explicit counter to the revival of the conservative "Dragnet" a year earlier. "They thought everybody under 25 was a creep, we thought everybody under 25 was misunderstood," Spelling wrote in his memoir.