There was a window in the summer of 2020 for once unthinkable, and unlikely, progress. This included the cancellation of Cops and Live PD, two reality shows embedded with law enforcement that sourced footage of real people in real arrests to enhance police and mock their targets. In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, the shows’ networks, Paramount and A&E, responded to pressure to reckon with television’s role in producing so-called copaganda. It was a long overdue move given that Cops, the longest-running reality show in history which could air as many as 69 times a week in syndication, cemented the influential archetype of police as hard-charging, swash-buckling, ends-justify- the-means characters and left a trail of off-camera damage in its wake.
It would not 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 it would revive Live PD, arguably the more unscrupulous, dishonest and dangerous version of its progenitor. The “live” version of Cops, Live PD premiered on A&E in 2016 and quickly became the most-watched show in its time slot with an average of 2.4m viewers. It was more popular than Cops, running in hour-long marathons, with six spinoffs by 2020. The return of Cops and Live PD is not surprising – there was too much money, too large a fandom, too wide a cultural divide and too little incentive for producers to not capitalize on it all to keep them off the air. But that does not lessen the disappointment, nor obviate restating what many unwilling participants already know: the revival of Live PD is a backslide, and people will pay for it.
The new Live PD has been rebranded as On Patrol: Live, but maintains the same production company, Big Fish Entertainment, as well as host Dan Abrams, who also serves as a 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 the one that existed previously”. As in, a show that applies the buzz of a sports highlight roundup to seemingly live police footage, threaded with commentary by analysts at a New York studio. Think NFL Red Zone, but for arrests of people not given the chance to sign release forms because the show bills itself as live news. “Live PD follows news gathering standards like any news organization – your local nightly news show or newspaper – would in covering a story,” an A&E spokesperson told the New York Times in 2020.
Abrams echoed this sentiment – that Live PD is an information-gathering tool – in the new series’ announcement. “I do 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 doing what they do. There was a conversation then about policing, there is a conversation now about policing, and as a result I think it is a good thing to have a lens on police departments.”
To be clear: Live PD does not act like a news organization. It puts a “lens on police departments” insomuch as it films hundreds of hours of footage that is then edited for entertainment and, as multiple investigations have found, with police input to keep blatant misconduct off-air. (There is a 10- to 25-minute delay allowing for producers to make edits, and “earlier footage” segments could be filmed weeks in advance.) If the environment has “changed,” as Abrams claims, it’s because public pressure has moved sufficiently elsewhere for Live PD to make a comeback; it’s not that the show intends to contribute to a more nuanced, accurate, and critical view of policing in the US.
Live PD is an even more deceptive plot than Cops, as it over-emphasizes transparency by suggesting the minutes-long segments aired on TV are 1) live 2) accurate, despite being culled from hours of footage and 3) representative of real life and real police work. That is not the case, as Live PD is entertainment in a symbiotic relationship with law enforcement. A Marshall Project investigation found through records requests from 47 agencies working with Live PD that at least 13 departments asked the show not to broadcast certain unflattering encounters, which ultimately did not make it to air. This reportedly included footage of an officer in Rhode Island hitting a suspected shoplifter on a skateboard with his car door, video of officers grabbing a possible domestic violence victim and dragging her out of her home in Washington, and a Louisiana officer 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 get deleted Live PD footage of the May 2019 arrest of Javier Ambler II, a 40-year-old black man, after a pursuit that began because he failed to dim his headlights; Ambler died after he was handcuffed, tasered and forced to the ground. The case and the possible loss of evidence were not known publicly until the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV reported it days before A&E canceled Live PD. It’s unclear if Williamson county sheriffs viewed the Live PD footage before it was destroyed, though 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 wrongly blaming producers for “stonewalling” the investigation.)
The Ambler case is perhaps the most egregious example of the show’s loyalties and incredibly murky ethics, but its mundane, bread-and-butter segments do their own harm. A 2020 Austin American-Statesman investigation found that uses of force by Williamson county sheriff deputies nearly doubled the year after Live PD partnered with the department, and that deputies used significantly more force during the weeks that Live PD camera crews filmed. Even if a case doesn’t turn violent, there’s the humiliation factor.
“They have no problem belittling you 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 six-part 2019 podcast investigating Cops and Live PD. Amy’s Live PD arrest was filmed when she was blackout drunk, sobbing, not committing a crime, and unable to give consent (not that it would matter because, again, this is supposedly live news).
Her, the podcast friend found, was sought out six times by police with the Live PD crew, hoping to catch her arrest 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 camera crews and a $40 payment. “They basically kept coming after my house and I finally realized that these people won’t go away,” he told producers. Live PD wouldn’t confirm or deny the payment, but the man offered text messages with a show producer supporting his story.
It may return to television, 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 get consent from everyone on the show as well as proper insurance. Maybe the restrictions and fears of liability will lead to a Live PD with fewer glorified, graphic uses of force.
Maybe the new departments and civilian ride-alongs will, as Abrams told the Hollywood Reporter, “change the fabric of the show”. I doubt it. No change to a program fundamentally intended to translate policing into gotcha entertainment would be enough.