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The Reality: Crime TV Will Continue

THE TRAGIC DEATH of a 7-year-old Detroit girl during a police raid May 16 has trained a klieg light on this troubled city. Among the list of concerns is whether or not a camera crew from A&E’s The First 48, there to document the proceedings, may have affected the tenor of the raid.

Several hyperbolic blame-the-media stories have cropped up in response, with Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press asking in an excoriating column, “How could that crew not impede the process?” But indications are that the outrage against The First 48 may be unjustified. The family of the slain girl has filed federal and state lawsuits against the Detroit police, but neither A&E nor ITV Studios, which produces the series, have been named in the suits. And this latest round of reality TV potshots should have little effect on a genre that law enforcement frequently praises.

“I don’t understand why you need to go that far to explain what happened [in Detroit],” says Patricia Aufderheide, director of American University’s Center for Social Media. “This is not the fi rst time that police have used poor judgment. In every city, it’s a constant discussion. So, I don’t actually see the argument for cause and effect for that poor 7-year-old.”

As Detroit authorities investigate the shooting, it remains unclear if the response team raiding the house even knew there were cameras present. “From my experience, nine times out of 10 people forget there are cameras following them,” says Susan Zirinsky, a CBS News veteran and executive producer of the network’s 48 Hours Mystery.

The incident centers on 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was hit in the neck by a stray bullet after the police lobbed a stun grenade into her home. Authorities were searching for a murder suspect, who turned out to be in the apartment above the one where Stanley-Jones lived. Two camerapersons from The First 48 were videotaping outside on the sidewalk, standing alongside several homicide detectives they were shadowing; they were not with the response team executing the raid.

A&E and ITV Studios surrendered their footage to Michigan authorities; neither would comment. The attorney for the Stanley- Jones family claims the footage proves that the armored cops who assaulted the house behaved with excessive force. Yet, he cannot prove he has seen the tape and has no copy of it.

‘Guilt by camera’
“If something bad happens when cameras are in the vicinity, people are quick to blame the TV crew,” says one veteran documentary producer. People in the business call this phenomenon “guilt by camera.”

But Zirinsky says police ride-alongs are never undertaken lightly and have become increasingly complicated in a litigious age. “You no longer go into people’s homes with the police on a raid,” she says. “There has to be an incredible sensitivity on the part of whoever is along with the cops.”

Law enforcement docu-series have proliferated with the explosion of cable television. And A&E has built its brand on the law and justice milieu. Law enforcement has been receptive to being documented because these programs show their departments in a positive light and have become valuable recruitment tools.

“Look at how long Cops has been on the air,” notes Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “It’s the police who give the approval. This isn’t Serpico and the Knapp Commission.”

The First 48 has been working with Detroit homicide since 2004. But last week, Detroit Mayor David Bing announced a moratorium on cameras during police raids. The show is filming in Charlotte, Miami, Birmingham, Louisville and Harris County, Texas.

“It’s such a terrible tragedy. [Investigators] will look at everything,” Zirinsky says. “They will ask, were people affected by knowing a camera was there? Ninety percent of the time, the answer comes back no.”

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