For nearly a decade, The First 48, A&E’s wildly popular reality show, has chronicled homicide detectives investigating scores of Miami murders — from Coconut Grove to Little Havana to Little Haiti.
Now, amid concerns that the cable television program glorifies violence in many of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and interferes with investigations, Miami police and the show’s producers have parted ways.
At issue is a request from Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa to have the show’s producers chip in a $10,000 donation, per new episode, to the Police Athletic League charity, which runs youth sports programs for at-risk children.
“We’re asking the show to donate monies to our P.A.L. program, to be spent in those communities where the show is being filmed,” Orosa said. The money would be used for programs in the communities’ parks and schools, the chief said.
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So far, the production company has not agreed to the donation request. The show’s contract recently expired and crews have stopped accompanying detectives to crime scenes.
John Kim, The First 48’s executive producer and co-creator, still remains hopeful that a new contract can be hammered out for Miami, the “face” of the show that has now aired 242 episodes featuring more than 400 cases from around the country.
The shows leaves a colorful, if at times controversial, legacy as cameras capture the first two days of real-life murder probes, personalities of homicide detectives, heartbreaks of families and the grittiness of Miami’s streets.
The show’s first two cases were in 2004, set in Coconut Grove and Little Havana. In all, 113 Miami cases have been featured on The First 48. Among the notable ones: the 2005 kidnap-torture-murder of Miami drug dealer Jesus Discua, the 2006 crossfire slaying of 9-year-old Sherdavia Jenkins in Liberty City, and the 2010 slaying of a state corrections officer and her 2-year-old son.
“The Miami detectives in many ways are a reflection of the city itself,” said Kim. “Miami is a very colorful city and the detectives tend to be much more open and demonstrative about their jobs, about their feelings and who they are. Also, it certainly helps that the setting is beautiful and sunny. There are not many other cities that look like Miami.”
Critics complain that the show focuses too much on African American neighborhoods, depicting them as lawless. They also say that distracts detectives from solving murders, reveals police investigative techniques and causes complications when cases go to criminal court.
“I felt they were shooting intimate detective work,” said victims rights advocate Queen Brown, who has often complained to elected leaders about The First 48. “I don’t want the criminal watching the TV program and knowing how he can beat the rap. I don’t see anything beneficial in the show.”
Brown’s own son was gunned down in 2006 in Miami-Dade County in a murder that remains unsolved.
Nationwide, similar concerns have been voiced about the show over the years. The First 48 came under intense scrutiny in May 2010 after a video crew accompanied Detroit police officers on a wrong-house raid that ended with a police officer accidentally shooting and killing a 7-year-old girl sleeping on a couch.
Critics slammed Detroit police, saying the officers used a flashbang grenade only to play to the cameras. The officer is awaiting trial for a involuntarily manslaughter, while a freelance videographer for the show is accused of perjury and obstruction of justice.
In March 2011, a former Kentucky murder suspect sued the show for defamation after charges against him were dropped for lack of evidence; in an unrelated case, he was later shot and killed.
Concerns about the show also have surfaced in criminal court. In July 2010, a Memphis judge refused to allow jurors to see a First 48-taped confession from a man accused of murdering four adults and two children because unaired footage was unavailable. Jurors, however, still heard about the confession from investigating detectives. The man now sits on Tennesee’s Death Row.
Miami-Dade prosecutors have long privately grumbled that the show gives defense attorneys more avenues to attack a case.
In an investigation involving the 2005 stabbing death of Will Fenzau in his home, defense attorneys used details broadcast in an episode to challenge the police version of how a murder suspect came to give a statement to detectives.
Prosecutors later dropped the murder charge against the man. Meanwhile, the victim’s sister has frequently written letters to the department and elected leaders complaining about the show. So far, no more arrests have been made.
Last year, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Yvonne Colodny threw out a police statement by Andrew Cummings, charged in 2008 with murdering his lover inside an Upper Eastside condo.
After viewing The First 48 episode, Colodny ruled that Cummings had been “illegally detained” before waiving his right to remain silent.
The judge was concerned after hearing the testimony of Miami Detective Fernando Bosch, who admitted that his “participation in the television show required him to ‘play act’ and create false scenes for the purpose of entertainment,” according to her ruling.
Prosecutors are appealing Colodny’s ruling.
“These are real peoples’ lives you are dealing with,” said David Edelstein, Cummings’ defense attorney. “And you’re acting out skits? You’re either a homicide detective or a TV star; you can’t have it both ways.”
Any acting came to an end four years ago, said Chief Orosa, after Miami detectives received reimbursement for staging promotional scenes on their off-time; the monies later were returned. The payments did not come from the show, which does not pay detectives, but from a company hired by A&E to promote the program and network.
Guidelines were established to ensure that detectives concentrated on their case, he said.
“If they think they’re growing too big for the homicide unit and it’s all about the show, they’ll be weaning uniforms back in patrol making reports,” Orosa said.
Certainly, Miami-Dade prosecutors have earned many convictions on First 48 cases. Last week, Miami jurors gave a life prison term to Walter Bailey, who shot and killed two men in a 2006 drug rip-off murder. The case was featured on the episode “The Deal.”
Miami Lt. Joe Schillaci, one of the show’s most popular detectives who appeared in 13 episodes, said he is a “ true believer” of The First 48 and credits the series with building worldwide goodwill for the department.
“It gave people a chance to look inside our hearts to see that we’re not CSI Miami. We’re not Miami Vice. We’re not Don Johnson sliding across the room shooting 1,000 bullets,” said Schillaci, who retires June 27 to pursue a career as an author and motivational speaker. “These cases are very real and personal to us.”
Former Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Matthew Baldwin feels the show’s presence does not adversely affect prosecutions. The show – in the episode “One Heart” — helped him secure guilty pleas for three men in the robbery murder of a 20-year-old Rastafarian.
“It’s a helpful snapshot that shows the difficulties homicide investigators … deal with on a daily basis,” Baldwin said.
Kim, the producer, says he is exploring ways to include some of the good things in communities featured on the show – whether it’s from activists working to improve conditions or organizations helping youth.
But he stressed the show is the only one on television that chronicles the real suffering of families and the ongoing violence in African American neighborhoods.
“This is the face of urban violence,” Kim said. “Keeping it out there in the public consciousness is important. It’s so easy to forget what’s happening.”