By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 5, 2006
Tim Russert's job is safe. So is Oprah's.
But John Walsh, host of "America's Most Wanted," might want to look over his shoulder, where if he looks really, really hard, he might catch a glimpse of "D.C. Public Safety."
Hosted by a former lawman who is spokesman for the District's probation office, the show is the first real foray into television for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency.
You can't call in the whereabouts of dangerous fugitives, as you can on Walsh's long-running Fox show, but if you have been looking for the story behind the criminals, "D.C. Public Safety" might be just what you've been waiting for.
It opens with a pulsating panorama of the District and the people of the agency in action.
Shown on public-access stations across the region and on the agency's Web site, http://www.csosa.gov/content.htm , "D.C. Public Safety" is an effort to explore the criminal justice system, especially issues important to those living in the community under the agency's supervision.
"It's designed to cast offenders in a different light," said Len Sipes, the host of the program, planned to air quarterly. "We hear about their failures. . . . Here, we're trying to focus on their successes."
No wonder. The agency isn't in the news much, but when it is, it tends to command that attention under less than desirable circumstances -- such as when one of the thousands of people the agency is supposed to be supervising is accused of a crime. Its everyday success stories get little fanfare.
Don't expect to hear horror stories on "D.C. Public Safety." The first episode focused on the work of churches and other faith organizations in helping people adjust to life back in their communities. The second episode, which was recorded just over a week ago and will air soon, examines the special problems facing women in the criminal justice system.
Sitting on the set, waiting for his guests to arrive for the taping of the second episode, Sipes is the first to say that when the cameras start rolling, you shouldn't expect Mike Wallace reprising his interview with the Ayatollah Khamenei.
"It's a cable TV show. It's not '60 Minutes.' . . . All I am is an ex-cop with a couple of college degrees," said Sipes, a former Maryland state trooper.
But that doesn't stop some guests from fretting as if they were about to face an interrogation. And it's not the two ex-cons who are worried.
"Is there practice?" Tosha Trotter, a supervisory community supervision officer, blurts out as things begin picking up on the set.
Not really, says Sipes, who does his best to calm her nerves.
"It's a conversation at a bar on a Friday night, except it's being filmed," he says. And except that there's no booze.
In fact, aside from Sipes's closely guarded bottle of water, there's nothing in the way of refreshments. And there's no green room for the guests to relax in before taping.
Like many television programs looking to keep costs down, "D.C. Public Safety" isn't shot where it is set. Production takes place in the University of Maryland Baltimore County's New Media Studio, which charges $3,000 an episode to put everything together.
Henrietta Meeks and Beverly Pollard, former convicts, are up first, talking about how drugs landed them in prison, how they intend to stay out and how others can avoid the traps they fell into.
Seated across from them, Sipes asks about the next generation, the ones who have yet to tire of the fast life.
"So what do we do with the younger offenders?"
"You really got me on that," Meeks replies. "They've got to unlearn and relearn," she belatedly offers.
As time runs out on the first segment, Sipes is too engrossed to see cameraman Aaron Weidele trying to signal Sipes to wrap up. Finally, someone catches his eye and the interview comes to a close.
"I'm a star!" Meeks shouts while sauntering off the stage.
Trotter and another supervisory officer, Elizabeth Powell, are Sipes's next guests, and when Sipes signals that he's ready to roll, Trotter lets it be known that she is not.
"He's ready," she says, feigning a touch of testiness. "Is anybody else ready?"
But before she knows it, Trotter is on stage, under the Klieg lights, answering Sipes's questions with aplomb.
It wasn't all that bad, she says afterward. It was just talking about her job.
"It's what we do for a living, and it's what we love to do," she says. "So once we started talking, it came naturally."
Sipes can only hope his next show -- on sex offenders -- goes as smoothly.