Jthere was a window in the summer of 2020 for once unthinkable and improbable progress. This included the cancellation of Cops and Live PD, two law enforcement-embedded reality shows that extracted footage of real people during actual arrests to valorize the police and poke fun at their targets. In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, the shows’ networks, Paramount and A&E, have responded to pressure to consider television’s role in producing the so-called copanda. It was a long overdue move given that Cops, the longest-running reality show in history that could air up to 69 times a week in syndication, cemented the influential police archetype as that charges hard, buckling, end-justifies- the average characters and left a trail of off-camera damage in its wake.
It wouldn’t last. Last September, Cops moved to Fox News Media’s streaming platform, Fox Nation, which aired its 34th season the following month. And on Wednesday, cable channel Reelz announced that it would be relaunching Live PD, arguably the most unscrupulous, dishonest and dangerous version of its ancestor. The “live” version of Cops, Live PD premiered on A&E in 2016 and quickly became the most-watched show in its timeslot with an average of 2.4 million viewers. It was more popular than Cops, running hour-long marathons, with six spin-offs by 2020. The return of Cops and Live PD is no surprise – there was too much money, too much fandom, too much cultural gap and too little incentive for producers not to capitalize on all this to prevent them from broadcasting. But that doesn’t lessen the disappointment, or preclude repeating what many reluctant attendees already know: Live PD’s revival is a throwback, and people will pay for it.
The new Live PD has been renamed On Patrol: Live, but maintains the same production company, Big Fish Entertainment, as well as host Dan Abrams, who is also chief legal analyst for ABC News. According to Abrams in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, On Patrol: Live “is going to be a very similar type of show to what’s been there before.” As in, a show that applies the buzz of a roundup of sports highlights to seemingly live police footage, complete with commentary from analysts in a New York studio. Think NFL Red Zone, but for the arrests of people who don’t have the ability to sign release forms because the show bills itself as live news. “Live PD follows newsgathering standards like any news organization — your nightly news show or local newspaper — would when covering a story,” an A&E spokesperson told The New. York Times in 2020.
Abrams echoed that sentiment — that Live PD is an information-gathering tool — in announcing the new series. “I think the environment has changed [since Live PD was canceled]“, he told The Hollywood Reporter. “I think the more we talk about policing, the more we should want to watch the police do what they do. There was a conversation then about policing, now there is a conversation about policing, and therefore I think it’s a good thing to have a focus on the services of police.
To be clear: Live PD does not act as a news agency. He puts a ‘lens on policing’ as he films hundreds of hours of footage which is then edited for entertainment purposes and, as numerous investigations have revealed, with police involvement to avoid flagrant mistakes. (There’s a 10-25 minute time limit for producers to edit, and segments of “past footage” could be filmed weeks in advance.) If the environment has “changed,” such as the Abrams claims it’s because public pressure shifted. elsewhere enough for Live PD to return; it’s not that the show intends to contribute to a more nuanced, accurate, and critical view of policing in the United States.
Live PD is an even more misleading ploy than Cops, as it places too much emphasis on transparency by suggesting that the multi-minute segments aired on TV are 1) live 2) accurate, despite being selected at from hours of footage and 3) representative of real life and real police work. It’s not, because Live PD is entertainment in a symbiotic relationship with law enforcement. A Marshall Project investigation found, through taping requests from 47 agencies working with Live PD, that at least 13 departments had asked the show not to air certain unflattering encounters, which ultimately were not broadcast. This allegedly included footage of a Rhode Island officer hitting a suspected shoplifter on a skateboard with his car door, a video of officers grabbing a possible victim of domestic violence and dragging her out of her home in Washington, and an officer in Louisiana possibly calling a black man “boy.” (Live PD said the footage was not released for other reasons.)
District attorneys in Austin, Texas have fought to have Live PD footage of the May 2019 arrest of Javier Ambler II, a 40-year-old black man, removed after a lawsuit that began because he did not turn off his headlights; Ambler died after being handcuffed, shocked and forced to the ground. The case and the possible loss of evidence were not publicly known until the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV reported it days before A&E canceled Live PD. It is unclear whether Williamson County sheriffs viewed the Live PD footage before it was destroyed, although according to email records obtained by the Marshall Project, Live PD producers regularly sent footage to deputies for review in 2019. (In March 2021, Live PD sued the Austin Police Department and Williamson County Sheriff’s Office for seizing their footage and falsely accusing the producers of “blocking” the ‘investigation.)
The Ambler case is perhaps the show’s most egregious example of the show’s loyalty and incredibly murky ethics, but its mundane, everyday segments do their own harm. A 2020 Austin American-Statesman investigation found the use of force by Williamson County sheriff’s deputies nearly doubled the year after Live PD partnered with the department, and deputies used far more by force during the weeks the Live PD camera crews filmed. Even if a case does not turn violent, there is the humiliation factor.
“They have no problem putting you down and humiliating you and degrading you…some of them calling you names and such,” a woman named Amy in Spokane, Washington, told Running from Cops, a podcast in six parts of 2019 investigating Cops and Live PD. Amy’s Live PD arrest was caught on video while she was drunk, sobbing, committing no crime and unable to give consent (that’s okay because, again, this is live information ).
Her friend, according to the podcast, has been wanted six times by police with the Live PD team, hoping to catch her arrest for missing an appointment with a corrections officer on camera. Another man from Tulsa, Oklahoma, said he agreed to go on the show after several visits from police and camera crews and a payment of $40. “They kept coming after my house and I finally realized these people weren’t going to leave,” he told producers. Live PD neither confirmed nor denied the payment, but the man offered text messages with a producer from the show supporting his story.
He may return to TV, but Live PD won’t be welcome everywhere; In May last year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law, named after Ambler, that would ban reality TV from partnering with state police. Spokane passed a measure in 2018 requiring Cops and Live PD to obtain consent from all show participants as well as appropriate insurance. Perhaps restrictions and liability fears will lead to a live PD with fewer glorified and graphic uses of force.
Perhaps the new departments and civilian overlap will, as Abrams told The Hollywood Reporter, “change the fabric of the show.” I doubt. No change to a program fundamentally intended to translate the police into gotcha entertainment would suffice.