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Archive for Thursday, May 20, 2010

Death in Detroit raises questions about reality TV

May 20, 2010

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— When police burst into a home in search of a murder suspect, a reality TV crew documented the raid — and may have recorded the death of a 7-year-old girl accidentally killed by an officer.

Aiyana Stanley-Jones’ death put a spotlight on the growing number of reality shows that focus on law enforcement. A number of big-city departments have used shows such as Fox’s “Cops” to attract recruits. Others have shied away from the up-close attention. And critics have questioned whether police behave differently when cameras are watching.

Some experts and officers believe TV crews increase accountability.

“I don’t see someone doing anything outlandish for the cameras because it’s more of a liability for us,” Detroit officer Brandon Cole said.

Detroit homicide investigators are featured regularly on A&E’s “The First 48,” which tracks murder investigations during the first two days after a slaying. On Sunday, a crew from the show was filming when police raided Aiyana’s house in search of a suspect in the killing of a 17-year-old outside a convenience store.

Police have said Aiyana was wounded inside the house when an officer was jostled by, or collided with, the girl’s grandmother. An attorney for the family said the shot came from the porch.

A spokesman for “The First 48” would not say if the raid was recorded, but police confirmed that the crew was present and that they are reviewing footage from that night.

Having a reality camera crew along on a police raid contributes to a culture that reduces everything to mere entertainment, said Hal Niedzviecki, author of “The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors.”

He said the show fits into the “peep culture” described in his book. “Somebody’s accidental death, somebody’s drug problem, somebody wins the lottery — it’s all equally entertaining,” he said.

In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that it was a violation of the Fourth Amendment for media to record police during a raid into a private residence. That’s one reason why the A&E crew stayed outside the home.

“There’s a public value in having media see what police do close-up, and it helps police be more accountable,” said Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, who represented officers in the case that led to that decision. “There are a lot of reasons to think this is a beneficial practice as long as it isn’t abused.”

Police say they get no compensation in the deal with A&E.

Dallas police had a similar agreement with A&E but decided not to renew their contract in 2008.

“It takes time and effort to coordinate when working with a TV show,” Dallas police spokesman Lt. Andy Harvey said. “We needed a break from the cameras.”

But “The First 48” did help recruiting and portrayed police in a favorable manner, former Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle said.

Department brass had final say on editing and exercised its rights on several occasions, usually over concerns about minor issues they felt reflected on the force’s professionalism. For example, they didn’t like shots of detectives smoking on the job, Kunkle said.

There were also concerns that video would contradict police testimony and hinder convictions. Kunkle said he ultimately decided video from the show would speak for itself and to trust the professionalism of his detectives.

“If it shows police at their best, then it’s helpful. If not, then it’s harmful.”

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