THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Sirens, Camera, Action

Policing entertainment in East Providence

by Miles Guggenheim

Illustration by James Gately

published February 15, 2020


The sun is officially down, but a morose blue still lingers in the sky behind Sergeant Michael Rapoza. He’s driving somewhere, eyes forward, stern and focused. A camera films his profile. Rapoza speaks to the frame without turning his head

“We’re gonna go to this, uh, disturbance,” he says.

Live PD cuts to a dark, gloomy yard in East Providence. Flashlights roam in and out of the camera frame as Sgt. Rapoza and the East Providence Police interview a man and a woman who have had a domestic dispute. The man wants the police to take the woman out of his house. The woman accuses him of being drunk. Sgt. Rapoza walks over to interview the woman while a younger, more apathetic officer, Ryan Cute, stays with the man.

The man begins to rant. Somewhere in Manhattan, a team of editors cut out his curses as he unloads his troubles and biases.

 

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For the producers of Live PD, this is expected content–segments of voyeuristic storytelling that make a particular episode good. On the ground in East Providence, however, these clips are more than just stories and often more than suburban interventions: they are filmed instances of police violence and surveillance. Because these interactions are broadcast as national television, Live PD provides the residents of East Providence with an opportunity to reckon with police interactions related specifically to privacy.

 

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The man finishes his rant as Officer Cute looks off, tired.

“Doesn’t sound like it’s going that well,” he says to the man.

“No, it’s not. It’s been back and forth like this—but I love her; she loves me, you know–”

“How long have you guys been together?” asks Cute.

“Like four or five months, you know, it’s just crazy…”

“Sounds like you’re in love,” says Cute.

Cute’s delivery is like a punchline: sarcastic, well-timed. The man takes these words at face value, but like all forms of irony, the meaning is primarily aimed somewhere else. Watching Live PD on my computer, it is easy to see that Cute is working on two levels here: he’s responding to a man in East Providence while speaking to a national audience. "This is not love" is the subtext of Cute’s judgment. Beyond the word of law, beyond the testimonies of the man and the woman, Cute is offering a dramatic interjection. He’s playing to the camera.

 

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According to Live PD's head producer Dan Cesareo, however, officers do not perform for the camera. In a 2015 interview following the show’s successful launch, Cesareo told IndieWire, “The cameras are there so much, and filming along a longer period of time, that people are who they are. Anyone who thinks they’re going to behave differently when the cameras are present—that goes away very quickly.” Of course, this is every documentarian’s ideal. No director or producer wants to interfere with the true, objective reality they claim to portray. For Live PD, a show that attempts to formally separate itself from other “outdated” forms of carceral reality television like Cops, the technical and aesthetic stakes are even higher. In practice they can mean the difference between what is classified as cheap reality entertainment, and what is classified as live, earnest news.

Once upon a time, satellite trucks, wires, and on-site technicians were a necessary part of any live television broadcast. Live PD, however, is one of the first shows to implement cellular camera packs, which transmit footage wirelessly from 36 cameras, covering 12 police departments across the country. This footage streams all at once, continually, for three hours on Friday and Saturday nights. Although in the past, moments from Cops were cut together over months of post-production, Live PD offers a constant surplus of real-time action. This way, if a story in Utah cools down, producers can refocus your attention to a suspicious car pulled over in East Providence.

Beyond intensifying the dramatic stakes on screen, Live PD's immediate, decentralized apparatus of production has allowed itself to claim a special status that earlier examples of reality TV wouldn’t dream of. Although footage on Live PD is delayed 20-40 minutes for review and edits, the revolutionary speed of this process allows the show to legally classify its content as “live news.” With multiple monitors playing at the same time and a group of anchors and analysts itching to direct the viewer’s attention to the next “breaking event,” Live PD looks like a CNN desk.

These aesthetics wouldn’t be a problem if this self-proclaimed genre of “objective journalism” didn’t imbue the show with excessive privileges. In the past, people who appeared on Cops had to sign release forms; airing live, Live PD  has the unchecked ability to show faces on screen, which means humiliating exposure on a national level for anyone who falls under the sights of a police force working with A&E entertainment.

At a time where unchecked police brutality and violence has dominated the images and discourse around American policing, Live PD’s journalistic sheen has only helped its ratings. Escaping the question of glorifying police work as entertainment, Live PD casts itself as moderator between the police and the American public. In an official statement online, Live PD goes as far as claiming that “Live PD viewers get unfettered and unfiltered live access inside a variety of the country’s busiest police forces.”     

“Unfettered” and “unfiltered” are ambitious words to describe a show that airs alongside Ghost Hunters, Neighbours with Benefits, and Storage Wars. Of course Live PD is filtered. The content it chooses to show and not show is curated by a staff of editors, lawyers, and producers. Even still, taking inventory of what is shown vs. erased, real vs. processed, live vs. late, distracts from the central question of how things on screen come to be. In other words, the problem with Live PD is not in what the camera misses, but the events it compels.

Last month in East Providence, a woman sued the city for one million dollars in emotional damages following an incident with the East Providence Police Department (EPPD) and a Live PD camera. According to the documents filed to the court, the plaintiff had just stepped out of the shower when she was called to open the door for what she thought were two East Providence police officers bearing urgent news. Flanked by a Live PD producer and cameraman, however, the officers were only there to confront her son for a 911 prank call she knew nothing about.

To the disappointment of the officers and the film crew behind them, the primary source of conflict wasn’t home: the boy had made the prank call from his friend’s house. The camera was without its intended subject. Instead, forced to refocus its attention, Live PD  bore down on a disgruntled mother in a towel as she attempted to contact her boy, filming through the open door of the house. To her surprise, the woman only noticed the cameras after she hung up the phone.

“I know you did not just allow me to stand there in my towel, half naked, and be filmed without my knowledge,” she allegedly told the officer.

“I told you there were documents,” replied an officer.

At that moment, it was unclear what the EPPD officer meant. However, later that night, a barrage of phone calls alerted the woman that Live PD had broadcasted her, uncensored, in a towel. Neither EPPD nor Live PD asked for her consent.

East Providence Police chief Chief Willaim Nebus was hesitant to tell the College Hill Independent any specific details about the incident while the case is still pending. However, he expressed confidence in Live PD’s position, noting that all the content on air was first reviewed by lawyers who are trained to predict this sort of trouble before the footage is aired. Moreover, in spite of the charges, Nebus believes that Live PD has the potential to reflect the EPPD in a good light. Unlike Cops, he offered, Live PD is interested in more than just car chases. Many segments, in fact, show EPPD officers helping the community, like the time EPPD officer Kyle Graves and a group of teenagers fixed a storm drain at the public park.

Being filmed, according to Nebus, is a daily aspect of policing in this day and age, whether it's a body camera or a Live PD crew. Live PD, Nebus told me, considers itself an extension of the body cam system—the only difference being that it offers information to the public, faster than the usual bureaucratic steps it takes to dig out footage from a database. When I asked him if he thought officers acted differently in front of Live PD cameras vs. their own body cameras, he answered: “I don’t think so, you know, because you’re still faced with the same—whether it's aggravation or the same set of facts in front of you. I don’t feel that they would act differently on camera.”

But contrary to what Live PD proposes, their camera perspective is quite different from a body cam. While body cams assume the first-person perspective of an officer, Live PD cameras incorporate the image of the officer within the event taking place. As a result, the officer isn’t just aware of the image their actions produce, but the image of themself producing these actions. In a third person frame, the officer becomes a character as much as an actor. By stepping outside the subjective, procedural lens of a body camera into a larger frame broadcast to millions of people, they climb onto a stage where action is expected even when it isn’t required. This is very different from the purpose of body cameras, which aim to restrict police action, rather than incite it.

Although the current lawsuit goes beyond the technicalities of consent and privacy on television in this particular instance, one cannot separate the actions of the police from the actions of the camera. As the camera’s demand for “real” content entwines itself with the imposition of police authority, the two forces bleed into each other so profoundly that their effects are just as hard to delineate and unpack as the term “reality television” itself.

The words “reality television” form a paradox: one cannot see reality without the television, and one cannot have television without reality. In this way, when television hits reality, both medium and content inevitably converge into a feedback loop. This feedback loop can be controlled but not eliminated, effaced through aesthetics of journalistic immediacy but never fully buried. Although it’s easy to dismiss Ryan Cute’s talented sense for dramatic irony as inconsequential, it is proof of this entangled relationship between entertainment and state power. Subtle in the case of Officer Cute’s thoughts about love, but colossal for a worried mother in East Providence.

 

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Two months ago, the East Providence Police Department announced on Facebook that it would be “taking a break” from Live PD. Although this occured after the lawsuit was filed, the EEPD made no indication that the controversy had anything to do with the intermission. On the same post, they even hinted the show might return to East Providence in the future.

Early this week, Chief William Nebus confirmed with the Independent that the break was only logistical. With new recruits being trained in the spring, there isn’t enough space in the patrol cars to hold Live PD crewmembers.  Even with the lawsuit pending, Nebus told the Independent that EPPD is still open to working with Live PD in the future. This prospect brings up ethical implication for the City of East Providence. In a court case where entertainment rights will be analyzed alongside police actions and civilian privacy, the community will likely have to come to a conclusion as to what Live PD’s mission really is. Although the EPPD is proud of the way their officers appear on camera, East Providence needs to reckon with its own status within the lens. In contrast to the EEPD, their status here is always subordinate to state force, an inescapable system of carceral power.

 

MILES GUGGENHEIM B’20 doesn't like when people refer to themselves in the third person.