In January, Johann Johnson of Richland County, South Carolina, found out that her son had been shot dead. She didn’t hear the news through a phone call or after a knock at the door. But rather she watched live on national TV, learning of her son’s death at the same time over a million other Americans who tuned into A&E’s hit reality crime show Live PD did. It was perhaps one of the worst days of Johnson’s life. And it was being shown on TV as entertainment.
Live PD, a twice-weekly show, has been on the air since October 2016. Since then, Variety reports, its viewership has risen 92 percent to draw an average of 1.4 million viewers per episode. That runaway success has prompted the network to order 100 more 3-hour episodes scheduled to run through 2018.
I hope you never see the program, but it’s still important to know what happens on what A&E calls the “top unscripted crime series on cable.” Hosted by ABC News anchor Dan Abrams, Live PD follows select law enforcement departments from across the country — including Greenville and Richland counties, South Carolina; Calvert County, Maryland; Jeffersonville, Indiana; and Spokane County, Washington — as officers go about their jobs, responding to emergency calls, serving warrants, arresting suspects, and occasionally partaking in high-speed car chases, amongst other routine cop duties.
The show is an obvious descendant of mega-hit series Cops on Spike, but with a twist. Everything that happens, happens live and unedited. On a typical episode, Abrams directs viewers between feeds from different parts of the country, cutting between them as they become more or less interesting. Sometimes he presents pre-taped segments, other times he looks to a panel of experts for analysis. All the while, the show encourages viewers to participate themselves via commenting on social media accounts.
Live PD runs on a delay (its precise length is undisclosed) in case anything horrific, like the more than 500 police shootings that have occurred in the U.S. so far this year, happens while they are filming. The livestream aspect is perhaps the most disturbing one of the wholly disturbing show, but it’s a feature used to market the show as an unbiased slice of reality TV media. It’s unclear whether or not contracts between A&E and the police departments they follow involve payment and whether people recorded for the show are asked to sign releases or can legally decline to be filmed.
Ahead of Live PD’s premiere, showrunner David Doss told BuzzFeed that the show is not intended to skew pro- or anti-law enforcement. “We're not here as apologists for law enforcement, we're not here as defenders of law enforcement. We're just documenting what happens,” he said. In April, the show’s creator Dan Cesareo told BuzzFeed, “It’s a natural extension of dashboard cameras and body cameras, and trying to present a more complete story, to answer the public’s call for transparency.” And Live PD’s official site bills it as “unfettered and unfiltered live access inside a variety of the country’s busiest police forces, both urban and rural, and the communities they patrol on a typical night.”
These claims of balance and transparency, however, are absurd. Dashboard cameras and body cameras themselves do not tell complete stories. Meanwhile, the basic format of the show lends itself to sympathize with the law enforcement officers it follows. We begin each encounter with the police officers, with their explanation of what is going on, as the cameras follow their every move. When officers drive to a scene or run licenses on their in-car computers, they speak directly to the camera and viewers, telling us how they’re experiencing and perceiving the situation. And when the action is slow, Abrams pops in to comment on or try to explain what we’ve just seen, ask opinions of gathered experts, sometimes while he speculates about the possible crime.
“[The show] essentially provides [audiences] a script on how they're meant to receive it, which is as entertainment.”
The communities they police, however, don’t get to defend themselves or show Live PD audiences their worlds. The identities of those filmed are never allowed to extend beyond their interactions with police. (Notably, lay people who appear in the live segments of the show do not have their faces blurred and are ignored when they complain that they do not consent to be filmed.) And the traumas they are experiencing are put on full display for the world. Unavoidably, Live PD audiences have seen a lot of mundane imagery and false starts on the show. An officer knocks and prepares to enter a home, but no one answers. Another takes an unacceptable amount of time by television standards to prepare his gun and other supplies for the night of work ahead of them. A drive to a call proves uneventful.
But audiences have also seen images of violence, injury, and even death. A December episode showed an officer responding to an emergency call for a dying child. In a recent episode, a man caught after a car chase pleaded with police, who attempted to arrest him as he held his young child; the child suffered a broken arm. The show has broadcast countless arrests, some of which, as the show’s introductory slide reminds us, may never result in a conviction. Additionally, in several of the counties and towns that Live PD covers, the percentage of people living below the poverty line is near or above the national average, reinforcing the impression that poor people are inclined to crime.
And though the goal of Live PD seems to be to place police departments and deputies in a favorable light, at least two departments have found the show to do just the opposite. Both Bridgeport and Tulsa police departments have cut ties with the show over concerns that it unfairly represents communities in those cities as hotbeds of crime. “A community should be defined and judged by the best it has to offer, and not by its worst moments,” Bridgeport spokesperson Av Harris told the CT Post of the decision.
Even so, the show isn’t lacking viewership. Its supporters may claim that, with the nationwide call for police accountability and transparency, Live PD is providing a public service in showing what “really” goes on when police officers are on the job. But considering the way it is presented, that’s hardly what’s happening. The ACLU advises that “for privacy reasons, the majority of body-camera video should not be subject to public release” except when “strong public interest in that video that outweighs privacy concerns: where there is a use of force, or a complaint against an officer.”
But presented as a hit TV show, the concerns mount. “As much as they want to think it's an extension of bodycam, this is a perverse bastardization of its intention of building trust for those people who are suffering from the trauma of police injustice every single day, as well as those allies working to really combat injustice and champion reform,” said Kiran Samuel, a digital strategist and PhD student of sociology at Columbia University whose research focuses on race, surveillance, and the politics of technology. “The fact that it's available and turned into entertainment does a weird number on what kind of message we're conveying about how we might treat these media that will inevitably come from these different real life, everyday, traumatic experiences across the nation with police. This essentially provides [audiences] a script on how they're meant to receive it, which is as entertainment.”
A&E and Live PD are duping audiences into thinking reality television can bring transparency to policing.
The social media aspect — which allows at-home viewers to react to the broadcast, even alerting officers to evidence they may have missed — also gives Samuel pause. “What's different about social media in particular is that there's there's an expectation now built for the audience to have a role,” she said “[Live PD] is capitalizing on the insight that there's a desire for an active role in a perverse fashion because what it's essentially saying is we are meant to be trained experts acting on behalf of the state conducting what a large part of the country believes is in dire need of reform. Now we want these armchair analysts to essentially in a lot of ways support and confirm the policing practices that we've built over time.”
Despite all of its ethical problems, A&E has little incentive to take the show off the air. As the network’s executive vice president and head of programming Elaine Frontain Bryant told Variety, the show’s success has “been a key contributor to the growth of the network at a time when the industry at large continues to experience viewership erosion.” A&E’s investment in 100 more episodes, paired with the decades-long success of COPS, is evidence enough that not only will television show creators continue to offer these perverse shows to the audiences they serve, but also millions of people are willing to consume these displays of trauma, encouraged by the idea that what they are seeing is “real.” (A request for comment was not returned by the time of publication.)
A&E and Live PD are duping audiences into thinking reality television can bring transparency to policing. But what they’re actually broadcasting is a monetized spectacle of the problems that plague the criminal justice today, namely a broken police system that targets low-income communities and people of color. It’s enough to make you wonder how Live PD ever got to air.