For once, in the summer of 2020, there was unthinkable and improbable progress. This included the cancellation of Cops and Live PD, two law enforcement-embedded reality shows that sourced footage of real people making real arrests to elevate police force and mock their targets. In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, the shows’ broadcasters Paramount and A&E responded to pressure to reckon with television’s role in producing the so-called copaganda. It was a long-overdue move considering Cops, the longest-running reality show in history, which could air in syndication up to 69 times a week, transformed the influential police archetype as a hard-nosed, swashbuckling, fit-for-purpose die- Medium characters and left a trail of off-camera damage.
It wouldn’t last. Last September, Cops moved to Fox Nation, Fox News Media’s streaming platform, which aired its 34th season the following month. And on Wednesday, cable network Reelz announced it would be reviving Live PD, arguably the more ruthless, dishonest and dangerous version of its predecessor. The “live” version of Cops, Live PD premiered 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 through 2020. The return of Cops and Live PD isn’t surprising — there was too much money, too large a fan base, too big a cultural divide, and not enough incentive to the producers not to capitalize on all that to keep them off the air. But that doesn’t lessen the disappointment, nor does it prevent it from repeating what many unwilling participants already know: the Live PD revival is a throwback, and people will pay for it.
The new Live PD has been renamed On Patrol: Live but shares the same production company, Big Fish Entertainment, as well as host Dan Abrams, who also serves as Chief Legal Analyst for ABC News. According to Abrams in an interview with , On Patrol: Live will be “a very similar type of show to what came before.” Like a show that applies the buzz of a sports highlight synopsis to what appears to be live-taped police footage, threaded with commentary from analysts in a New York studio. Think NFL Red Zone but for arrests of people who weren’t given an opportunity to sign release forms as the show bills itself as live news. “Live PD follows news gathering standards as any news organization — your local evening news show or 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 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 watch police officers do their jobs. There was talk about policing then, there is talk about policing now, so I think it’s a good thing to look at police departments.”
To be clear, Live PD does not operate like a news organization. It represents a “lens on police departments” as it films hundreds of hours of footage, which is then edited for entertainment and, as multiple investigations have found, with police input to keep blatant misconduct off the air. (There’s a 10- to 25-minute delay that allows producers to make edits, and “earlier footage” segments could be shot weeks in advance.) If the setting has “changed,” as Abrams claims, then it has because public pressure has shifted elsewhere sufficiently for Live PD to make a comeback; It’s not as if the show wants to contribute to a more nuanced, accurate, and critical view of policing in the US.A June 2020 rally in Austin that also served to call for justice for Javier Ambler.
Photo: Sandy Carson/Zuma/Rex/Shutterstock
Live PD is an even more deceptive ploy than cops because it overemphasizes transparency by suggesting that the minute-long segments that are broadcast on TV are 1) live 2) accurate despite being chosen from hours of footage, and 3) representative are for real life and real police work. That’s not the case, as Live PD Entertainment is in a symbiotic relationship with law enforcement. An investigation by the Marshall Project, through inquiries from 47 agencies working with Live PD, found 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 Rhode Island officer hitting a suspected shoplifter on a skateboard with his car door, videos of officers grabbing a possible domestic violence victim and dragging her from her home in Washington, and a Louisiana officer who possibly calling a black man “boy.” (Live PD has said the footage was not aired for other reasons.)
District attorneys in Austin, Texas fought to delete live PD footage of the May 2019 arrest of Javier Ambler II, a 40-year-old black man, following a pursuit that began because he did not dim his headlights; Ambler died after being handcuffed, tased 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 on it days before A&E canceled Live PD. It’s unclear if Williamson County sheriffs viewed the live PD footage before it was destroyed, although live PD producers periodically sent footage to deputies for review in 2019, according to Marshall Project email records . (In March 2021, Live PD sued the Austin Police Department and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office for seizing their footage and falsely accusing the producers of “blocking” the investigation.)
The Ambler case is perhaps the most egregious example of the show’s loyalty and impossibly gritty ethic, but its mundane, bread-and-butter segments wreak their own havoc. A 2020 investigation by Austin American-Statesman 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 during the weeks that Live PD camera crews filmed, using significantly more violence. Even when a case doesn’t turn violent, there’s the humiliation factor.
“They have no problem putting you down and humiliating and demeaning you … some of them call you names and stuff like that,” a Spokane, Wash. woman named Amy told Running from Cops, a six-part 2019 podcast, in where cops and live PD are being investigated. Amy’s live PD arrest was filmed drunk, sobbing, not committing a crime and unable to give her consent (not that it would matter, as again this is rumored to be live news).
Her friend, according to the podcast, was wanted six times by police with the Live PD crew in hopes of arresting her for missing an on-camera appointment with a corrections officer. Another man in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said he agreed to attend the show after several visits from police and camera crews and a $40 payment. “They basically keep coming after my house and I finally realized these people aren’t going to go away,” he told producers. Live PD would neither confirm nor deny the payment, but the man did offer to text messages with a show producer who supported his story.
It may return to TV, but Live PD won’t be welcome everywhere; In May last year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation named after Ambler that would ban reality TV from working with state police. Spokane passed a measure in 2018 requiring cops and Live PD to get consent from everyone on the show, as well as proper insurance. Perhaps the limitations and fears of liability will lead to a live PD with less glorified, graphic uses of violence.
Perhaps, as Abrams told the Hollywood Reporter, the new departments and civilian fellow riders will “change the plot of the show.” I doubt it. No change to a program that basically aims to translate police work into gotcha entertainment would be enough.