There was a window into the summer of 2020 for progress that was previously unthinkable and unlikely. This included the cancellation of Cops and Live PD, two reality shows embedded in law enforcement that obtained footage of real people in real prisons to value the police and mock their targets. After the police murder of George Floyd and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, the show’s networks, Paramount and A&E, responded to pressure to consider television’s role in producing the so-called co-paganda. It was a long overdue move, as Cops, the longest-running reality show in history, which could air up to 69 times a week in syndication, cemented the influential police archetype as tough, braggart, end-to-end 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 revive Live PD, possibly the most unscrupulous, devious and dangerous version of its progenitor. The “live” version of Cops, Live PD debuted on A&E in 2016 and quickly became the most-watched show in its time slot, averaging 2.4 million viewers. It was more popular than Cops, running in hour-long marathons, with six spin-offs by 2020. The return of Cops and Live PD is not surprising – there was a lot of money, a very large fandom, a very large cultural divide, and very little incentive. for producers not to capitalize on all this to keep them off the air. But that doesn’t lessen the disappointment, nor does it avoid reaffirming what many reluctant participants already know: the Live PD revival is a setback, and people will pay for it.
The new Live PD has been renamed On Patrol: Live, but retains the same production company, Big Fish Entertainment, as well as host Dan Abrams, who also serves as ABC News’ chief legal analyst. 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 was there before.” As in a show that applies the buzz of a sports highlight summary to apparently live police footage, laced with commentary from analysts in a New York studio. Think of the NFL Red Zone, but for arrests of people who haven’t had a chance to sign release forms because the show presents itself as live news. “Live PD follows newsgathering standards as any news organization – your nightly news or local paper – would in 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 the announcement of 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 see police officers doing what they do. There was talk then about policing, there is talk now about policing, and as a result I think it’s good to have a lens on police departments.”
To be clear: Live PD does not act as a news organization. It puts a “lens on police departments” by shooting hundreds of hours of footage that is edited for entertainment and, as several investigations have found, with police involvement to keep blatant misconduct out of the air. (There is a 10- to 25-minute delay allowing producers to make edits, and “previous footage” segments can be filmed weeks in advance.) If the environment has “changed,” as Abrams claims, it is because public pressure has changed sufficiently elsewhere for Live PD to return; it is not that the program is intended to contribute to a more nuanced, accurate, and critical view of policing in the US.
Live PD is an even more deceptive ploy than Cops, as it overemphasizes transparency by suggesting that the minute segments shown on TV are 1) live 2) accurate despite being selected from hours of footage and 3) representative of the real life and real police work. This is not the case, as Live PD is entertainment in a symbiotic relationship with law enforcement. A Marshall Project investigation found, through requests for records from 47 agencies working with Live PD, that at least 13 departments asked the show not to air certain unflattering encounters, which ended up not airing. This reportedly included footage of a police officer in Rhode Island hitting a suspected shoplifter on a skateboard with the door of his car, video of officers grabbing a potential domestic violence victim and dragging her out of her Washington home, and a Louisiana police officer possibly calling a black man. “Boy.” (Live PD said the footage was not aired for other reasons.)
Austin, Texas district prosecutors struggled to delete Live PD footage of the May 2019 arrest of Javier Ambler II, a 40-year-old black man, after a chase that began because he was unable to turn off his headlights; Ambler died after being handcuffed, electrocuted and forced to fall 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 the Live PD. It is unclear whether Williamson County sheriffs saw the Live PD footage before it was destroyed, although according to email logs 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 the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office for seizing their footage and wrongly blaming the producers for “preventing” the investigation.)
The Ambler case is perhaps the most blatant example of the show’s loyalty and incredibly murky ethics, but its mundane and common threads do their own damage. A 2020 Austin American-Statesman investigation found that the use of force by Williamson County Sheriff’s deputies nearly doubled in the year after Live PD partnered with the department, and that deputies used significantly more force during the weeks when Live PD camera crews filmed. Even if an affair does not turn violent, there is the humiliation factor.
“They have no problem belittling you, humiliating you and degrading you…some of them swearing at you and stuff,” a woman named Amy in Spokane, Washington, told Running from Cops, a 2019 six-part podcast that investigates Cops and Live PD. Amy’s live arrest was filmed when she was drunk, sobbing, not committing a crime, and unable to give consent (not that it mattered because, again, this is supposedly live news).
Her friend, the podcast discovered, was approached six times by police with the Live PD team, hoping to catch her in prison for missing an appointment with a corrections officer on camera. Another man in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said he agreed to be on the show after several visits from police and film crews and a $40 payment. would go away,” he told the producers. Live PD did not confirm or deny the payment, but the man offered text messages with a producer on the show supporting his story.
You can go back to television, but Live PD won’t be welcome everywhere; In May of last year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed legislation, named after Ambler, that would ban reality TV partnerships with state police. Spokane passed a measure in 2018 requiring Cops and Live PD to obtain consent from everyone on the show, as well as adequate insurance. Perhaps the restrictions and fears of liability will lead to a Live PD with less glorified uses of force and graphics.
Perhaps the new departments and civilian escorts, as Abrams told the Hollywood Reporter, “change the fabric of the show.” I doubt it. No change to a program fundamentally aimed at translating policing into prank entertainment would suffice.