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Media Frame: Time to Ban Ride-Along Police TV

Reality shows like ‘The First 48,’ ‘Live PD,’ and ‘Cops’ are interfering in legal cases, exploiting people of color, and threatening lives.

Police arresting a person
Photo by Getty Images.

The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.

In 2013, Shawn Peterson was charged with triple homicide in New Orleans. He was facing the death penalty. At the time, the A&E show “The First 48” was working on an episode called “Heartless,” about the brutal murders of which Peterson was accused.

Peterson’s attorneys subpoenaed the show, which shadows police for the first 48 hours of a murder investigation, for its unused episode footage. But a producer swore in an October 2014 affidavit that the show had destroyed the footage requested. The following May, according to a motion filed by the defense—and now obtained by The Appeal—a member of A&E’s social media team posted a “deleted scene” to Facebook with the following comment: “Next Monday at 8pm, it’s a #First48 Monday Marathon of some of the most shocking murders involving family members. Watch a deleted scene from one of those cases, ‘Heartless.’”

The show’s alleged misrepresentations about the footage, the defense argued, “directly implicate not only Mr. Peterson’s Fifth Amendment rights, but also the very reliability and integrity of these proceedings.”

Ultimately, the presiding judge, Laurie White, dismissed the motion, and Peterson later pleaded guilty in exchange for an 80-year prison sentence. But White admonished the “The First 48” producers, telling the court, “I wish that the city would never contract with ‘The First 48,’ and I hope in the future they would think through that. I now have a death penalty case in which three people were alleged to have been murdered. It causes the court great concern to have to deal with the additional problems.”

White is correct. “Ride-along” reality TV like “The First 48,” “Live PD,” and “Cops” should not only cause the court serious concern but also the public. In 2017, “Live PD” filmed and aired a car chase that ended with a severely injured 2-year-old. That same year, a South Carolina woman learned her own son had been killed while she was watching “Live PD,” which follows police during their patrols. In 2018, a Miami man received a $1.3 million settlement after being falsely accused of murder on “The First 48.” A sound technician for “Cops” was shot and killed by police in 2014 while filming a police encounter at a Nebraska Wendy’s.

Mass movements to reform the police, led most notably by Black Lives Matter, are beginning to question our culture’s default position of police deference. Why not extend that same scrutiny to police ride-along shows, which interfere in legal cases with far-reaching consequences, threaten lives, and overwhelmingly target poor people and people of color? In fact, local lawmakers everywhere should go further and ban these shows outright.

Dumping these shows is already mainstream. Bridgeport, Connecticut; Greenville County, South Carolina; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Streetsboro, Ohio, have let their contracts with ride-along show “Live PD” expire, citing negative impact they’ve had on residents and local businesses alike.

Former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has gone further. In 2010, after 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was shot and killed by Detroit police in a raid accompanied by “The First 48” camera crews, Bing banned the police from allowing reality TV crews to ride along with them. According to HuffPost, “activists argued that having a television crew present could have affected how the police executed their search warrant the night Aiyana was killed—creating more of a spectacle than was necessary, for the sake of the cameras.” Indeed, the lure of celebrity was clear: Police Chief Warren Evans, who was asked to resign, had already filmed promos for his own ABC ride-along show called “The Chief.” (The project was canceled after his termination.) Allison Howard, a producer for “The First 48” who was present the night Stanley-Jones was killed, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for showing episode tapes to a third party and hindering the investigation—similar to allegations of unaccountability and recklessness found in the Peterson motion years later.

The City Council in Spokane, Washington, also voted in March 2018 to effectively ban ride-along TV. Several people who attended the vote expressed concerns about how these shows routinely exploit the powerless and mislead the public. Cynthia Fine told Northwest Public Broadcasting, “I believe it is wrong to present as entertainment the actions of people who may be having the worst day of their lives. To profit off the sadness, illness or just plain bad behavior of others is really shameful.” Another Spokane resident told reporters, “This parade of people of color, people of disabilities, people of people in poverty, is not something our community needs. It’s not something our community should be perpetuating.”

Data supports the charge that ride-along shows target people of color and poor people. Dan Taberski, whose podcast “Running from COPS” investigates the police reality show, collected 68,000 data points and found that “Cops” leads with crimes committed by African Americans at a disproportionate rate: Black suspects are 17 percent more likely to be arrested before the first commercial than a white suspect. In 2013, anti-racist boycotts of “Cops” by the civil rights group Color of Change led to Fox dropping the program. (The show was later picked up by Spike and now airs in syndication.) The group’s executive director, Rashad Robinson, told The Marshall Project in 2018 that shows like “Cops” represent “for us what was the very worst of the way poverty and crime and communities of color are shown on TV.”

In an op-ed published Tuesday in the New York Times, Taberski notes that the show also exploits those with apparent addiction and mental health problems. Of the 11 suspects featured on “Cops” whom Taberski and his producers tracked down and interviewed, “all but one said they either did not give their legal consent to appear on the show, were too inebriated to consent knowingly or were coerced into signing—with the police and producers, troublingly, working together to get those signatures.”

The origin of these shows is telling. Before “Cops,” Ronald Reagan’s White House, which was ramping up the war on drugs in the mid-1980s, actively lobbied national news networks to come along with the Drug Enforcement Administration on ”crack raids,” practically inventing the genre. According to a 2006 University of Texas research paper, “The White House instructed the DEA to allow ABC News to accompany them on ‘crack house’ raids. As the head of the New York office of the DEA reported back to his superiors, ‘Crack is the hottest combat-reporting story to come along since the end of the Vietnam War.’… In 1986 alone, more than one thousand crack stories appeared in the press, with over 400 crack cocaine reports on NBC alone.”

In 1986, taking a cue from the White House, “Cops” creator John Langley filmed what was in effect a backdoor pilot for the show, called “American Vice: The Doping of a Nation,” a 93-minute prime-time special hosted by Geraldo Rivera. As Tim Stelloh’s profile of “Cops” details, the show took the ride-along genre to new visceral extremes:

Clip from “American Vice: The Doping of a Nation”

“American Vice” quickly became a libel and liability nightmare. One of the women featured in the special, Terry Rouse, later sued Rivera for defamation and eventually settled for an undisclosed amount. Rivera referred to Rouse as a “prostitute” who was “supplying truckers [with] speed.” But it turns out Rouse was present at the bust because she was there painting a friend’s house. “Cops,” from the start, was based on smearing the obscure and powerless.

While ride-along shows like “Live PD” and “Cops” are indeed ratings powerhouses, their origin shows the extent to which the genre isn’t an organic result of consumer demand but instead the product—and artifact—of a public relations strategy promoted by law enforcement during the height of the war on drugs. Langley admits from the earliest “Cops” episodes that police have some editorial control over what is shown. According to an interview with Stelloh, he told police at the time, “‘If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for us,’ because it’s by invitation. We’re not going to burn any cops or do anything that’s going to screw up your department. That’s the only way we can do the show.”

Today, law enforcement is quite explicit about the PR value of ride-along shows. When Williamson County, Texas, debated canceling its contract with “Live PD” last May, County Sheriff Robert Chody lobbied to keep the contract by explaining how it doubled as a recruiting tool for law enforcement.  “We don’t have those vacancies that we once had,” he told CBS Austin. “When ‘Live PD’ came on board, we went from that shortage of 30 [correction officers] to a waiting list of applicants for corrections.”

This isn’t journalism, it’s PR—a formula that’s remained unchanged since “Cops” first aired 30 years ago.

Police may like the ride-along TV arrangement, but they, and the city councils that ostensibly regulate them, work for residents, up to and including the disproportionately poor who are used by these programs as cheap entertainment fodder––to say nothing of the families of those whose murders and rapes are used to titillate the viewing public. Public officials should be in the business of protecting constituents, not using the worst days of their lives to boost police department egos and TV conglomerates’ bottom lines.