Are reality cop shows altering reality?

January 14, 2014
Steven Seagal
Steven Seagal in his show “Steven Seagal: Lawman.” (Michael Muller/A&E Network)

The Miami New Times has published a disturbing look at “The First 48″, the reality police show on A&E in which camera crews follow police departments on homicide investigations. The show’s title is based on the conventional wisdom that most homicides are either solved within the first 48 hours of an investigation, or they’re never solved at all. The problem with the conventional wisdom is that while the numbers may well bear it out (I actually haven’t seen any empirical data confirming whether or not it’s true), it doesn’t follow that police should rush to solve cases as quickly as possible.

The theory is that after 48 hours, trails go cold, witness memories begin to cloud, and forensic evidence disappears. But it may be simpler than that. It could simply be that a large percentage of homicides are easy to solve quickly—crimes of passion, crimes in which the killer acted within moments of the decision to act—whereas carefully planned, premeditated murders take more time, if they’re solved at all. And there may be very little police can do to move a murder from the latter category to the former.

And as the New Times investigation demonstrates, it may do more harm than good to try. The story opens with the case of Taiwan Smart, wrongly arrested and charged with a murder by police who were being followed by a camera crew from the A&E program.

 . . . within days, barely past the show’s deadline, Miami Police had their man. The missing roommate, 21-year-old Taiwan Smart — who’d been present before the murders but conspicuously absent afterward — was charged on November 18, 2009, with two counts of second-degree murder. “What we have is a circumstantial case, but the circumstantial evidence that we have tells a strong story,” Detective Fabio Sanchez said into the cameras as Smart was carted away in handcuffs. Sanchez paused. “It’s a shame that these two victims, who were very young, had to lose their lives to a person who they thought was their friend.”

The cops’ case, however, wasn’t nearly as strong as Sanchez made it sound. To lock up Smart — which they’d do for a staggering 20 months — Miami Police would grossly misrepresent witness statements and tell outright lies. They’d take an impoverished kid and destroy his character not only on the streets but on a national scale. Finally, they’d ignore the man who was fingered as the real killer.

The tragedy inflicted upon this wrongfully accused man, however, is only the latest injustice in this show’s history. In Detroit, city police shot a 7-year-old girl in the head in a bungled attempt to catch a suspect on The First 48. In Houston, another man was locked up for three years after cops wrongfully accused him of murder within the first 48 hours. And in Miami, according to a New Times examination of court records, at least 15 men have walked free after being charged with murder under the program’s glare.

Despite it all — sloppy crime scenes, rushed arrests, ruined lives — The First 48, which has now reached its 13th season, is as popular as ever. Millions of Americans tune in to every new episode, and with ratings as seductive as these, who cares about a few botched investigations?

I took a look at the effects of some of these shows for a column in 2009. The premise of “The First 48″ presents its own unique set of problems, mostly the implied pressure on the departments to meet the 48-hour deadline. But more broadly, reality cop shows tend to emphasize all the ass-kicking, name-taking aspects of police work, with little emphasis on community service. (“Cops,” the longest running police reality show, was actually one of the more accurate portrayals of the job.) Over the long term, that raises some interesting and troubling questions about what a generation raised on these shows thinks about police work, and about what sorts of personalities will be attracted to a career in law enforcement based on the way the job has been portrayed on TV. Most police departments also retain the right to veto what footage gets on the air, so viewers often see a revised, cleaned-up sort of “reality.”

My favorite example of playing for the reality TV cameras has to be the time washed-up action star (now potential gubernatorial candidate) Steven Segal drove a tank into the living room of a man suspected of cockfighting. Of course, this was in Maricopa County, Arizona, home of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. So it could well have gone down the same way without the TV crew.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · January 14, 2014