By Lisa de Moraes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; C01
The genre of reality TV went on trial this week when a camera crew in Detroit for the popular A&E cop show "The First 48" witnessed a house raid that resulted in the shooting death of a 7-year-old girl. The family's lawyer says he's seen footage that contradicts the police account of what happened, and family members and attorneys in Detroit have suggested that the cops may have been playing to the camera crew during the fatal raid.
The May 16 incident occurred exactly one month after the Jefferson Parish, La., sheriff's department shut down production on another A&E cop reality series, "Steven Seagal: Lawman," after a lawsuit was filed against the action movie actor, now making himself over as a Jefferson Parish sheriff's reserve deputy. A 23-year-old woman has sued Seagal for $1 million in a California civil lawsuit, claiming he hired her as an executive assistant, flew her to Louisiana while he was making the reality series, allegedly kept her at a house in Lafitte, La., with two other women, and allegedly had sex with each.
Both shows are produced by ITV, a company that also makes "House of Dreams" for A&E cable network, which is jointly owned by Disney, NBC Universal and Hearst.
A spokesman for A&E declined to discuss the presence of "The First 48" at the deadly incident in Detroit. Likewise, a spokesman for ITV declined to discuss the incident or the camera crew's role.
"The First 48" camera crews are given "unprecedented access to crime scenes, forensic processing and interrogations" as the show follows detectives in real time during the critical first 48 hours of homicide investigations in some of the country's largest and busiest police departments. Averaging about 2 million viewers, the reality series is one of the most-watched nonfiction investigative shows on cable, and one of the bigger successes on an A&E lineup that also includes "Dog the Bounty Hunter," "Manhunters," "Hoarders" and "Intervention."
For this Detroit case, the show's producers have turned over footage to police, according to a source with knowledge of the situation who asked not to be identified because the source is not authorized to speak publicly. In the show's long run, it's not the first time the producers have been asked to share their images, the source said.
Geoffrey Fieger, the attorney for the family of the 7-year-old, Aiyana Jones, told reporters Monday that he had seen about four minutes of video from the raid, but he would not confirm whether the footage was shot by "The First 48" crew or someone else. He insisted that the video contradicts the police report of what happened.
Police say officers threw a nonlethal flash grenade through the first-floor window of the two-family home. Then, when an officer ran into the girl's grandmother, his gun discharged, accidentally killing the child.
But Fieger says the video shows an officer lobbing the grenade and then shooting into the house from the porch.
"The First 48" crew had been following Detroit homicide detectives for months; the episode would typically be telecast six months to a year after taping had wrapped. Before an episode can air, anyone seen on camera has to sign a release allowing their image to appear on the show; otherwise they are blurred out of the shot. Even so, it's unclear whether this particular episode will ever make it to A&E's lineup, given the brouhaha that has erupted over the raid.
According to the Associated Press, the camera crew had been following homicide cops, who were joined by an "elite Special Response Team" that raided the duplex. The combined police units were looking for the suspect in the shooting death of a 17-year-old high school student outside a party store not far from Aiyana's home. Police did arrest the target of the raid, a 34-year-old man, inside the duplex.
The camera crew did not enter the home during the raid, according to a source with knowledge of the situation who did not want to be identified because the source is not authorized to discuss the situation. But the very presence of the reality-show crew at Aiyana's death has led to debate as to whether the police acted differently because they knew they were going to get their 15 minutes of fame on TV.
Detroit Assistant Police Chief Ralph Godbee has told news organizations that the department was confident the film crew's presence had no effect on how the raid was conducted.
But the family has retained Fieger, the nationally known, Detroit-based attorney who also represented assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian. The Detroit Free Press, in its coverage of the raid, reported that lawyers who have sued the Detroit Police Department over police procedures questioned the use of the flash grenades in light of the presence of the reality-TV crew.
"I am absolutely convinced that, when police officers go on search-warrant raids with a film crew tagging along, officers think more about making good television rather than executing a search warrant with concern about the safety of officers and citizens," said Farmington Hills lawyer Thomas Loeb, who, the paper said, specializes in police misconduct lawsuits, many of them involving the Detroit Police Department.
Covering the raid and girl's death, the AP interviewed two sources identified as local "prominent criminal defense attorneys," who said they did not know of any instances in the past when Detroit police had used flash grenades in raids when children might be present.
"That's a new one," Detroit lawyer Corbett Edge O'Meara told the AP. "That does seem to be a pretty extreme measure."
"I've never heard that before in my entire career," lawyer Marvin Barnett told the AP.
Second Deputy Chief John Roach on Tuesday told the Detroit News that the department is not paid to participate in the reality-TV series.
Police have not identified the officer whose gun fired the shot that killed Aiyana, except to say he is a 14-year veteran with six to seven years on the Special Response Team, and that he has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.