Death in Detroit raises questions about reality TV

A&E program "The First 48" may have captured a police officer shooting a 7-year-old girl

Published May 19, 2010 8:51PM (EDT)

When police burst into a home in search of a murder suspect, a reality TV crew documented the raid -- and may have recorded the death of a 7-year-old girl accidentally killed by an officer.

Aiyana Stanley-Jones' death put a spotlight on the growing number of reality shows that focus on law enforcement. A number of big-city departments have used shows such as Fox's "Cops" to attract recruits. Others have shied away from the up-close attention. And critics have questioned whether police behave differently when cameras are watching.

Some experts and officers believe TV crews increase accountability.

"I don't see someone doing anything outlandish for the cameras because it's more of a liability for us," Detroit officer Brandon Cole said.

Detroit homicide investigators are featured regularly on A&E's "The First 48," which tracks murder investigations during the first two days after a slaying. On Sunday, a crew from the show was filming when police raided Aiyana's house in search of a suspect in the killing of a 17-year-old outside a convenience store.

Police have said Aiyana was wounded inside the house when an officer was jostled by, or collided with, the girl's grandmother. An attorney for the family said the shot came from the porch.

A spokesman for "The First 48" would not say if the raid was recorded, but police confirmed that the crew was present and that they are reviewing footage from that night.

Having a reality camera crew along on a police raid contributes to a culture that reduces everything to mere entertainment, said Hal Niedzviecki, author of "The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors."

He said the show fits into the "peep culture" described in his book. "Somebody's accidental death, somebody's drug problem, somebody wins the lottery -- it's all equally entertaining," he said.

In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that it was a violation of the Fourth Amendment for media to record police during a raid into a private residence. That's one reason why the A&E crew stayed outside the home.

"There's a public value in having media see what police do close-up, and it helps police be more accountable," said Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, who represented officers in the case that led to that decision. "There are a lot of reasons to think this is a beneficial practice as long as it isn't abused."

Police say they get no compensation in the deal with A&E.

Dallas police had a similar agreement with A&E but decided not to renew their contract in 2008.

"It takes time and effort to coordinate when working with a TV show," Dallas police spokesman Lt. Andy Harvey said. "We needed a break from the cameras."

But "The First 48" did help recruiting and portrayed police in a favorable manner, former Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle said.

Department brass had final say on editing and exercised its rights on several occasions, usually over concerns about minor issues they felt reflected on the force's professionalism. For example, they didn't like shots of detectives smoking on the job, Kunkle said.

There were also concerns that video would contradict police testimony and hinder convictions. Kunkle said he ultimately decided video from the show would speak for itself and to trust the professionalism of his detectives.

"If it shows police at their best, then it's helpful. If not, then it's harmful."

Two years ago, police in Memphis decided not to renew their contract following complaints from some officials that the show gave the perception the city was overrun with crime.

Detroit has battled that perception for decades.

The city had 375 homicides in 2008 and 379 last year. So far this year, the number of homicides is down by about 34 over this time in 2009.

Still, it's been a brutal month, with at least 12 homicides beginning with the May 3 shooting death of patrolman Brian Huff in a vacant house and wounding of four other officers.

Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, said Detroit's recent violence could create a "vicious circle" for law enforcement.

During such times, "you might expect that they would become more aggressive and confrontational as a result," said Levin, who has written several books on violence and murder.

"When the crime rate rises, even over a short period of time, the police are blamed, so they are also asked to become more aggressive, make more arrests, make more raids. That inspires people to shoot back. You get more police shot, and the police do more shooting."

Gary Brown, City Council president pro tem and a former deputy police chief, does not believe there is a correlation between Huff's death and actions of officers Sunday.

"I assume they are going to be professional. I would hope the crew didn't have any impact on policies and procedures," he said.

But criminal defense attorney Marvin Barnett said the cameras probably played a role in how the raid was conducted, especially in the use of a flash-bang grenade designed to stun people inside a building.

Barnett said he could not recall the use of such devices on houses with children inside.

"We are making the police actors in a reality drama, and it might make them decide to showboat," said former Detroit Councilwoman Barbara-Rose Collins, who does not recall reviewing the deal with A&E but said she would have opposed it. "Everybody wants to be John Wayne."

Councilman Ken Cockrel Jr. said programs like "The First 48" have "potentially huge benefits" for the city.

"It's good public relations for the police department, especially if they get the guy they're after." But, he added, "those benefits only accrue if things go right."


Associated Press writers Mike Householder in Detroit and Jeff Carlton in Dallas contributed to this report.

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