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THE NORTH HOLLYWOOD SHOOTOUT

Officials Fear TV Could Show Too Much, Too Soon

March 01, 1997|MATT LAIT and GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Live, from the scene: An officer, sitting in his own blood, slumps against a car and waits for help. A heavily armed bandit fires off round after round before crumpling to the ground, shot by police. Down the street, another gunman armed with an automatic weapon hides behind a car, unloading on officers who duck for cover less than 20 feet away.

As morning viewers saw those horrific events in North Hollywood unfold on their television sets Friday, the law enforcement community watched too, growing increasingly uneasy over who might be tuning in. Were loved ones panicking as they saw friends or spouses put their lives on the line?

"These are very tense situations," said Los Angeles Police Lt. John Dunkin, adding that news directors need to use caution when their cameras get so close that an officer, especially a wounded officer, could be identified. "There has to be some discretion by these news agencies."

And although he says reporters play an important role and help police relay information to the public, Dunkin said live coverage in some cases could put officers in peril if criminals have access to a television and are able to watch police tactics and deployment.

"That kind of coverage can negate what we are attempting to do," he said.

But along with such concerns, some officers said the coverage Friday gave them a sense of vindication because the public had an opportunity to peek into the realities of their lives.

"It shows the public the hazards of this profession," said Dennis Zine, a director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. "It's shows people how violent and desperate criminals are and how little respect they have for the public. It shows we're the good guys, we're not the villains."

Zine said he hoped Friday's incident would silence people who four days ago criticized officers of a special LAPD unit for their involvement in a Northridge shooting that left three alleged robbers dead and a bystander wounded.

"It's ironic. . . . Yesterday we were assassins, today we were doing our jobs," he said.

Even though Zine said he supported the live coverage, he agreed that television crews should not hamper police operations or get so close that a wounded officer could be identified.

Local television news officials, while trying to be sensitive to police and their tactics, are also aware of the exciting nature of such live incidents, saying they have an obligation to be as aggressive as possible in their coverage.

The boldness in this case resulted in one of the suspects apparently firing at news helicopters. At another point, viewers of at least two stations watched one of the suspects getting shot in the head by police.

"That's one of the dangers of live coverage," said KCBS-TV Channel 2 News Director Larry Perret. "But we have to cover it. We try to cooperate with the police, but it's a tough decision."

KNBC Channel 4 News Director Bill Lord said Friday's shooting was one of the most remarkable breaking news events captured on television.

"I would rank it just below the bombing in Oklahoma City," he said. "In this case, we didn't really see blood, but we saw gunfire, which is more shocking in the immediate sense."

For the most part, police officials say television news crews are sensitive to concerns of law enforcement. When an officer was gunned down in Hollywood in October 1994 near the KTLA Channel 5 studios, the station did not air footage it had of the dying officer until his family had been notified.

"We were very, very appreciative," said Dunkin, who until a year ago had been an LAPD spokesman. "If something is to happen to [police officers] they would prefer that their families learn about it from the department rather than from television."

On Friday, several news crews pulled away from camera shots of police surrounding a shed because police voiced concerns that the coverage might alert possible suspects in the area.

"There's a balance in these instances with trying to pull far enough back while still covering the story," said Beth Maharrey, acting co-news director of KCAL Channel 9. "But that doesn't mean we're not going to show as much as we can."

She said that often in breaking news situations, stations are monitored by police in the department's press relations office, which has a wall of television sets--one for each station.

"There's a press information officer who is in contact with us all the time. They are not the enemy," Maharrey said.

Jose Rios, news director of KTTV Channel 11, said the station's "first concern has to be public safety. You have to be careful in showing the officers who are in harm's way. The biggest concern the police had were aerial shots. . . . We have to be responsible."

Executives, however, scoffed at the notion that the suspects might be watching television to get an idea what police are up to.

"The chance that they are watching TV is highly unlikely," Perret said.

But it is likely that the spouses and friends of officers in the field are glued to their televisions.

Karen Morales, a member of Peace Officers Wives Club Affiliated, said live crime coverage is one of the most gut-wrenching things the spouse of a law enforcement officer can watch.

"There is nothing you can do," said Morales, the wife of a Garden Grove police officer who watched Friday's coverage at home. "I was grateful to have my husband sitting next to me."

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