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Baca's TV shows get mixed reviews

L.A. County OKs new reality program, but some say such projects

February 12, 2009|Richard Winton

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department received permission this week to develop its sixth reality-based police show in the last five years despite concerns from some law enforcement experts that such projects give a false and sensational portrayal of police work.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors gave Sheriff Lee Baca approval to work with a Northern Ireland-based production company to create a series titled "Tech Force USA."

The series will focus on the technology unit's efforts to use high-tech equipment to catch criminals and keep the public safe.

Baca says he is an unabashed fan of pulling back the curtain on the inner workings of law enforcement.

"The sheriff believes the more the public sees, the more public will understand the challenges that law enforcement faces every day," said Steve Whitmore, a sheriff's spokesman. "Transparency isn't just a buzzword. You need to show people what is going on."

Some civilian oversight experts, however, say these shows are not designed to educate the public and can have negative consequences.

"These shows are entertainment and they are going to look for the most sensational incidents and events and ignore the more mundane parts of policing," said Sam Walker, a professor emeritus at University of Nebraska Omaha and a law enforcement expert. "They distort policing." Walker said the sheriff's project seems like more of the same because he suspects it will exaggerate the role technology plays in good police work.

Los Angeles Police Commission Inspector General Andre Birotte Jr. said the risks for a police agency associated with so-called police reality shows outweigh the benefits. He said there are issues of privacy for suspects and others, liability concerns and potential problems with how officers are portrayed.

"Typically, these shows are not documentaries," he said. "They are oftentimes designed to be sensational with a plot-driven story line created by producers rather than the actual participants."

The department's cooperation with reality-based programs has been criticized before. Two months ago, the department's own watchdog criticized the agency's cooperation with "The Academy," a reality show about training deputies, finding that the program subjected young recruits to on-air humiliation, invaded their privacy, threatened their safety and made them the targets of internal harassment.

Michael Gennaco, the department's independent monitor, said his criticisms of "The Academy" were specific to that program and did not necessarily apply to "Tech Force," in which the participants probably would be veteran deputies and experts.

"The bottom line is the issues for 'The Academy' do not exist in this show right now," he said, referring to the current project. "Obviously, once it airs, we will keep an eye on it."

Although Baca said he wants to be transparent, the contract with Waddell Media gives the Sheriff's Department the right to edit, revise or delete scenes for a variety of reasons, including concerns about security, privacy and liability.

In addition to "The Academy," the sheriff has authorized "L.A. Homicide," a program about detectives investigating murder cases; "The Assignment," a patrol show; "The Real CSI," a look into the scientific analysis of evidence; and "Sheriff's Stories," which would track cases from crime scene to arrest.

So far "The Academy" is the only show involving the Sheriff's Department to air. Whitmore said Wednesday that these shows remain in the development phase.

Another benefit of the shows, sheriff's officials say, is that, if they are successful, they can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue -- money that is needed in tough budget times. In two seasons, "The Academy" has generated about $250,000.

The Sheriff's Department is not alone in its willingness to work with reality-based production companies. The LAPD has participated in "LA Forensics," a Court TV reality program that depicts the department's Scientific Investigation Division.

Mary Grady, the LAPD's communications director who oversees trademark issues, said the department sets a high standard for shows and is inundated with offers, but few go anywhere.

The department is in talks for an unspecified show it believes may be beneficial to public safety, she said. But Grady said it was too early to reveal any specifics.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

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