Local author and retired cop Michael Middleton served from 1966-1988 in the Los Angeles Police Department. Years of writing police reports have colored his conversational style. He gets to the point, and he doesn't mince words.
"Any writer who says they don't care about reviews is lying," he tells me.
The reviews for his first book, Cop: A True Story, have all been favorable, a fact which he admits pleases him. He's also quick to tell me Cop has provoked some strong negative responses: "Yes, it's true, but you should never have told it," and "He made that crap up."
The "crap" in question deals with the rampant racism that Middleton encountered in the LAPD in those days. His career covers "the time between the fires" of the Watts riots and the Rodney King riots. When he speaks of that time, he doesn't mince words.
"Yes," he asserts, "the LAPD was that bad. In 1966, it had only been integrated for 2 years."
He speaks with candor about how he, a 22-year-old hardcore liberal Democrat, bought into the racist mindset and did his share of bigoted butt-kicking. His conversion came about when, at 26, he decided to finish college, and his philosophy professor gave him a list of assigned readings that changed his life. He says when he started feeling the changes, he knew he had to speak out, and the first public statement had to be, "I was wrong."
This reversal was hard for his fellow officers to accept at first. He was called "Pinko Commie" and other epithets associated with liberal politics in the 60's and 70's, which, to Middleton, made no sense.
"I don't view crime and the suppression of crime in a liberal/ conservative construct," he says.
He stood his ground and took pains to still be a good cop. Eventually, attitudes mellowed, and in 1988 he retired from the LAPD with the rank of Sergeant. He sums up his tenure in a simple sentence:"I had a great time."
And then he started teaching high school: English, English as a second language, French I-IV, and Spanish I-III.
It didn't take long to discover that the kids loved to hear him tell his police stories. They even behaved and did their class work so that there would be time for a story before the bell.
Middleton also coached hockey and lacrosse. On game buses his team would pump him for stories. They kept saying, "Coach, you oughta write a book."
He thought about it, but not seriously, until the Rodney King trial in 1992, when LA was once again torn apart by racism. He knew then that he had to speak out.
Cop was released in 1994 by Contemporary Books. Not only is it still in print, in 2000 a second edition came out, with 60 additional pages.
And Middleton has a second book, just published. His publisher thought he wrote about cops so well that he'd do a great job with firefighters, too. The title sums it up:Medal of Valor Firefighters: Gripping Tales of Bravery from America's Decorated Heroes.
The Medal of Valor is the highest honor bestowed on a firefighter or a cop. It means "you risked your life to save someone else's."
For this book he conducted about 125 interviews. He found it remarkable that none of the firefighters he contacted refused to talk to him, equally remarkable that all their stories were not only gripping but also inspirational. "The hard part was choosing" what to include.
Wit and good nature take the edge off Middleton's candor when he's talking about cops. But when he speaks of these firefighters, there is no edge; he beams with an expression of unadulterated admiration.
He can't seem to get over how self-effacing these people are. One after another, he heard them say, "What's the big deal? Folks are calling me a hero, but I don't see it."
It was a humbling process, too. He said, "They were entrusting me with some of, if not the most painful incidents of their lives."
If Middleton's past record is any indication, those stories are in capable hands. As a police sergeant, he wrote 10 citations that resulted in the Medal of Valor being awarded to 10 of his officers. He thinks that must be some sort of record. Many citations are written. Not many of them result in a Medal of Valor. These successful citations, and the letters he has received from people who became police officers as a result of reading Cop, please him more than all the rave reviews.
Middleton harbors no illusions about pleasing all of the critics all of the time. He knows he's bound to chalk up a bad one or two. With a shrug he says, "If you don't want people to be critical of your work, don't show it to them."
You can request both titles at your local library. For autographed copies, keep your eyes open for a possible book signing soon at Bistro 309 on William Street, downtown.