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Friday, May 21, 2010

Should media ride along, film police investigations?

A few days ago, a 7-year-old girl was killed during a police raid in Detroit. It's not clear exactly how it happened. The police maintain that it was an accidental discharge inside the home, and the family's lawyer says police might have fired into the building.

The story has another wrinkle: A film crew connected to A&E's "The First 48" was on hand during the raid. If you're not familiar with the show, it's a reality program that documents the first 48 hours of a police investigation, which is usually a make-or-break time for detectives. In its ninth season, the show is very popular -- partly because the producers are given amazing access and show, in detail, how the police handle serious cases.

The crew's video from that night has been handed over to Michigan state police, though nobody knows yet if it will be helpful in the police review. It's raised the question whether it's a good idea to have crews following police around so closely. The AP has a good story about the issue here.


On the one hand, having cameras present can complicate matters for police. During the Terry Blair murder case, "The First 48" followed KCPD detectives, and the result was a very popular episode. But Judge John O'Malley publicly criticized the department for cooperating with the show and advised them not to do so in the future. (In the interest of full disclosure, Star reporters have occasionally done ride-alongs similar to the TV crews, though I'm not sure if we've done video.)

That was the first time I could find any local police getting rebuked for doing reality shows. Most of them go over really well. Besides "The First 48," there was also "Kansas City SWAT." And I know KCK and KCPD both have done episodes of "COPS." (The KCK episode is a personal favorite of mine.)

Capt. Rich Lockhart, a spokesman for KCPD, says "The First 48" has not been back since the Blair case, though the department hasn't said it would stop doing those sort of projects entirely. "COPS," for example, probably wouldn't be a problem because that show doesn't delve deeply into investigations.

A few departments, including Dallas and Memphis, have decided not to do any more "First 48" episodes. (Memphis, because city officials thought the show made it look like Memphis had a big crime problem. Dallas, because it's a lot of work to coordinate with the show, the AP reports.)

But there are a lot of benefits, too. The shows generally portray the police very positively, and they show how difficult investigating a murder can be. They're sort of an antidote to the "CSI" shows, where everything's wrapped up neatly in one hour.


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