Why it’s a shame Live PD may be too real for some tastes

The average citizen has no idea how much time cops spend searching buildings for intruders, mediating domestic quarrels, or recovering illegal drugs

Several law enforcement agencies regularly featured on “Live PD” have decided to end their participation in the show. The program is a little too real for some of their constituents.

A&E’s “Live PD” is a reality show on the same theme as “COPS,” “Campus PD” and others that send camera crews out with police patrols. The wrinkle of “Live PD” is that the program is broadcast in almost-real time. A central control room coordinates the live feed from five or more crews at a time, all in different parts of the country. There is a delay of five to 20 minutes so as not to compromise investigations or privacy issues, and the central studio has a host and a couple of police consultants to provide transition and commentary.

None of the agencies depicted are especially well-known. They represent a cross-section of medium-size law enforcement agencies that answer the same calls for service and perform the same policing duties that are familiar to any experienced cop. If nothing else, they illustrate that police work doesn’t change that much from one place to another. The weather, uniforms and environment may vary, but the stories remain the same.

External forces

The outfits that are pulling out are doing so mostly because their local government politicians don’t care for the way their communities are being portrayed.

The cops are shown going to trailer parks, run-down housing areas and the seedier parts of town, and arresting people for being drunk, or high, or violent, or just plain anti-social. They are going where cops go, and they’re doing what cops do.

Most people live their lives in blissful ignorance of the grittier aspects of their communities. Growing up, their parents tell them to stay out of certain parts of town, and as adults, they have no reason to go there. If someone asked them where they could go to score some meth, buy or sell stolen property, or pick up a hooker, they might have a vague idea, but they wouldn’t know specifics.

The typical street cop can probably supply you with specific names and addresses if asked the same questions and inclined to answer. The typical street cop may have visited these premises within the previous few days, or maybe an hour ago. With rare exceptions, this is true of every city and county in America.

The city and county fathers urging a departure from “Live PD” probably have some awareness that these ills exist within their communities, but they are comfortably distanced from it, and they don’t have to confront it very often. That is, after all, why they authorize the money to pay for cops who take care of those things for them, and confront evil on behalf of the local government so the elected officials can sleep peacefully in their beds.

They also don’t like “Live PD” giving the world the impression that their city or county is rife with crime. If the people of America see that the cops in Bridgeport or Tulsa are running from call to call, going after drugs and muggers and drug fiends, they’ll come to believe that the town has a huge crime problem, and won’t bring their business or tourism there.

So they ask the chief of police or the sheriff to cut ties with the show so that Google searches will be more likely to yield a marketing video from the Chamber of Commerce than the TASER-ing of Bubba after he punched his girlfriend’s lights out.

Not much has changed

This sort of revelation isn’t anything new. “COPS” was a new program the last few years I worked the street, so the television portrayal of cops for the typical citizen came from programs like “Hill Street Blues,” “Miami Vice” and (regrettably) “T.J. Hooker.” Lacking another frame of reference, this was what people thought they knew of police work.

I was frequently assigned citizen ride-alongs. Their motive for accompanying an officer on patrol varied, but they often just wanted to see for themselves what we did every day.

Invariably, they got an unexpected dose of sensory saturation. They had no idea we spent as much time as we did searching buildings for intruders, mediating domestic quarrels (and sometimes arresting the participants), or recovering illegal drugs. They seemed to think we spent most of our time eating donuts and writing tickets. After that experience, they didn’t see the city in quite the same way as they had before.

Later on, during my teaching career in different parts of the country, I would have well-intentioned citizens tell me that nothing much ever happened in their town, and that there was practically no crime. I’d reply with, “Then, do you think the police department is a waste of money, that they have nothing to do?” Sometimes, they did think it was a waste. I’d encourage them to get the ride-along experience and find out just how much nothing was going on.

It’s a shame that the associations with “Live PD” are ending because people don’t want the nature of their communities to become known. As with so many things, there are details people prefer to remain ignorant about. Fortunately, there are still close to 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. that “Live PD” hasn’t yet shown on TV, so they won’t want for material.

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