MEDIA FRAME: TIME TO BAN RIDE-ALONG POLICE TV
By Adam H. Johnson, The Appeal
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.