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'Cops' Under Fire

Reality TV show faces tough questions from Santa Rosa officials

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"This is the first time filming with this agency [SRPD]," Ragsdale wrote to the Lippin Group. "We were supposed to start filming with them last week when we started with Sonoma County but the city was slow to get the agreement complete, so I pushed the start date for Santa Rosa PD to May. The agreement still isn't done. I prefer to give this guy as little as possible."

The fires? The fires, Ragsdale wrote, had nothing to do with the show's decision to come to Sonoma County.

The persistent charges of racism raised by Color of Change? "You already know how to answer this one," Ragsdale wrote to the PR firm. The answer: don't answer it.

After the back-and-forth between Ragdsale and the Lippin Group, Langley Productions provided the following statement to the Bohemian: "We are looking forward to featuring the exceptional work the men and women of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office do everyday in upcoming episodes of Cops."

After learning about the mistakenly sent email, Cops' executive producer Morgan Langley weighed in: "The intent of Cops is to document the reality of policing on the ground as it happens. There is no intended bias in the show."

ENTERTAINMENT OR REALITY?

Color of Change's work on this issue hasn't gone unnoticed by Santa Rosa officials. Less clear is whether anyone at SCSO is aware that Cops is considered by police-accountability advocates to be a highly problematic program.

"Studies have shown that this TV program portrays a disproportionate number of people of color than the actual percentage involved in crimes," Combs says. "And it shows violent crimes disproportionately—and also underrepresents women and minorities on the police force itself. It also misrepresents effective police work. I think our city is better than this."

The controversy over Cops now touches on who will be Sonoma County's next sheriff and heightened scrutiny of law enforcement accountability following Lopez's death and officer-involved shootings across the country.

Ernesto Olivares wears three hats in this debate as a member of the Santa Rosa City Council, a former city cop and a candidate for sheriff. He says that if it had been his decision to make, he would have said no to Cops.

"My historical perspective is that it hasn't really provided any real public benefit," he says as he emphasizes ongoing efforts at police accountability and transparency in the county.

Candidate John Mutz, a former Los Angeles police captain, says he could support Cops if it portrayed "honest transparency" in policing. At its best, he says the show portrays police officers on the beat doing a difficult job.

"People have to understand that it's a show based on ratings and entertainment," and that if it does reflect biases, "that is not acceptable. From my POV, as sheriff, I wouldn't participate in that kind of viewpoint. In that case, this is more of the corporate-media coverage of crime. It is not helpful and is strictly entertainment."

Mark Essick, the other candidate for sheriff, is currently on the SCSO force and did not respond to a request for comment.

NOT SO FAST Santa Rosa Chief of Police Hank Schreeder is meeting with city council members to discuss possible participation in the 'Cops' program.
  • NOT SO FAST Santa Rosa Chief of Police Hank Schreeder is meeting with city council members to discuss possible participation in the 'Cops' program.

Chief Schreeder's due diligence is not the typical response of local law enforcement when contacted by Cops, says Hatch. In her study of the show, she has never seen a situation where "there is an effort to get community buy-in, and it's part of the normal [public relations] machine that has been intentionally set up."

"It might be rare, but it's not rare in Santa Rosa," says Olivares, who likens Schreeder's effort to the city's recent rollout of body-cameras. "When Schreeder introduced body cameras, he initiated input throughout the community to help shape the policy."

Not so at SCSO, which did not reach out for community input before signing the contract with Cops on Feb. 7. The show's producer told the sheriff's office that SRPD would be participating.

Sheriff's office spokesman Sgt. Spencer Crum says SCSO had not consulted with SRPD "at all about their decision to be involved. Don't know their decisions, other than a Cops producer told us they had agreed."

Crum has praise for the show and did not address questions about bias.

"Cops provides a platform to provide information to the public on the good work being done by Sonoma County deputies and the challenges they face on the streets," Crum said in response to a set of emailed questions. "It's also a chance to showcase how far along policing, training and community relations have come since Cops started filming 31 years ago."

The SCSO's work with Cops had nothing to do with ongoing fallout from the Lopez incident, says Crum, who adds that the sheriff's office based its decision on input from the Stockton Police Department, where Cops recently filmed.

"The filming of Cops was widely accepted by the community, the elected leaders and their individual officers."

Crum believes police-accountability groups would appreciate the sheriff's office's efforts to provide "better transparency on a local and a national level."

Hatch, for one, does not.

"The show never tackles accountability," says Hatch. "It paints a one-sided view of law enforcement. At its worst, Cops is very cheap to produce, and it's a very dangerous television show," she says, noting that police officers can and do perform for the cameras, as she highlights that there is no profit or benefit to the community. The profits go to the Paramount Network, "and those are the people who are profiteering off of the pain of the individuals and the community. There is nothing to gain for Sonoma in Cops coming to town."

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