Reality hasn’t been real around here since the Broward Sheriff’s Office went Hollywood in ’86.
That was when BSO first allowed Geraldo Rivera and his camera crew to tag along on drug busts. Sheriff Nick Navarro, that great showman of a cop, provided commentary for Geraldo’s two-hour special, American Vice: The Doping of a Nation.
Traditional police officers were aghast. “That’s not police work. That’s entertainment,” Hollywood Police Chief Richard Witt said.
Maybe so. But it was such swell entertainment that the new Fox TV network wanted more, directing members of Geraldo’s production team to head back to South Florida for a season-long venture into law enforcement cinéma vérité.
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Cops debuted in March of 1989, opening with a reggae beat and the lyrics: “Bad boys. Bad boys. Whatcha gonna do when they come for you.” Then came an hour-long montage of cops crashing through doors, guns drawn, herding so many stunned, gape-mouthed suspects, often shirtless, into custody.
Cops offered up a salacious vision of South Florida. An enthusiastic Los Angeles TV critic, after watching the show, described us as “a snake-pit cocktail of violence, drugs, guns and illicit sex.” Cops delivered record ratings for Fox. And the oxymoron called reality TV was born.
Judges, however, have been a bit more critical than the critics, as faked-up reality and cops playing-to-the-camera warped actual criminal investigations.
On Wednesday, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal upheld a lower court decision tossing key evidence in a 2006 murder arrest and investigation that had been recorded by a reality TV crew. The court ruled that video evidence borrowed from the show had been “so heavily redacted that the available portions were deprived of relevance.”
The appeals panel agreed with Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Yvonne Colodny, who had ruled that prosecutors could not use video from the A&E reality show First 48 in the second-degree murder case against Andrew Cummings. The show’s edited video footage shows Cummings, after he was read his Miranda rights, admitting that he had beaten his lover with a towel rack.
But Judge Colodny said the TV video evidence was not admissible, that it could not be seen by a jury. She reiterated the same complaint judges raised back in the 1980s, that TV entertainment values had waylaid criminal justice.
“The court has serious concerns about what is real versus the result of reality television,” Judge Colodny wrote.
She noted that the Miami police detective in the case, Fernando Bosch, “clearly admitted that his participation in the television show required him to ‘play act’ and create false scenes for the purpose of entertainment.”
The judge wrote that “Bosch himself admits that there are scenes in this, and every case filmed, that he is unable to determine what is real and what is ‘make believe.’ The truth of what occurred during defendant’s investigation has been clouded and blurred by Bosch’s participation in The First 48 program.” (After spending nearly a decade documenting — sort of — homicide investigations in Miami, The First 48 quit the city in 2013.)
Truth also got a little blurry on that first TV-cop production in 1986. When Sheriff Navarro allowed Geraldo Rivera to pretend to be an undercover agent on a $60,000 cocaine buy at a Fort Lauderdale hotel, the sting fell apart when the doper recognized the well known TV personality.
Geraldo and crew went along on another drug bust in Pompano Beach and videotaped the police as they raided the home of a coke dealer named Nelson Scott. Great visuals. Lousy police work.
Scott was convicted, but in 1990 an appeals court ordered a new trial because the jury had seen Geraldo’s videotape in which deputies, playing to the cameras, made sarcastic comments about the defendant’s past. One deputy was shown saying to Scott, “We have been getting a lot of complaints about you. This is [not zoned] for a supermarket for cocaine.”
And that was just the preamble to a scandal that would drag out for years. Turns out that neighbors of Scott, who had some very suspicious ties to BSO deputies, had been begging the sheriff’s office for years to do something about the dope dealer. But nothing was done until Geraldo’s TV crew needed a sure bust.
Sheriff Nick himself was nearly cited for contempt in 1989 by an angry U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler after the sheriff missed a crucial federal court hearing in a jail overcrowding lawsuit. Turned out that Navarro was in Los Angeles meeting with Cops producers.
Then there was the TLC Network’s reality show, Police Women of Broward County (2009-2011), featuring very attractive BSO deputies. In 2011, Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein complained the show was “more about jiggles than justice.” He called it “boobs, butts and badges.”
His office represented 10 clients who had been arrested by the show’s stars as TLC cameras were rolling. Finkelstein suggested there may have been monetary incentives at play when the deputies busted the PD’s clients. His office filed motions in court charging that the deputies had “manufactured, rather than detected, crime for the benefit of the lowest form of entertainment: a voyeuristic reality television show.”
Not much came of the claim, but the phrase made for a fine description of this peculiar art form. Maybe we all should pay more heed to the obligatory disclaimer tacked onto the beginning of cop reality shows: “Viewer discretion is advised.”