In late February, police in Marietta, Georgia, captured 21-year-old Tony Amati. Amati, police say, turned to a life of crime for sheer kicks. The former honors student robbed a gunstore and shot homeless people for target practice.
Amati’s capture was triggered by a recent profile on STF Production’s America’s Most Wanted: America Fights Back, the reality-based crime-fighting series broadcast on Fox. Hosted by John Walsh, whose six-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered in 1981, the series pursues fugitives with man-hunting resources like a toll-free hotline, the Internet, a nationwide link-up with police and sheriff’s departments and Fox network spots. Since its debut in 1988, the show has aided in the capture of over 1,300 fugitives – some of whom have been apprehended in locales like South America, the French Riviera and the Middle East – and recovered nearly 140 kidnap victims.
‘America’s Most Wanted taps into an important part of the American psyche,’ says co-executive producer Philip Lerman. ‘People are tired of crime, so they want to do something about it. Instead of watching shows which merely portray crime, they demand shows which take action against crime.’
The series celebrated its 500th capture with Amy Dechant, the ‘Black Widow’ of Las Vegas, who killed her boyfriend and attempted to dissolve the corpse with dry-cleaning chemicals. Dechant was found in a Florida nudist colony. Says Lerman, ‘It’s ironic that our 500th capture involved a woman who clearly had nothing to hide.’
Last May, Fox announced plans to cancel the show, but public outcry demanded a reversal. Lerman recalls, ‘More than 1,000 people wrote letters, 37 governors signed a petition asking Fox to reconsider, and the legislature of four states cast resolutions condemning Fox. So the network executives finally admitted defeat.’
Thanks to the public’s burning demand for justice, reality-based crime-fighting shows have also taken hold on the other side of the Atlantic. About four years before America’s Most Wanted, the bbc launched Crimewatch UK, inspired by Germany’s Achten Zeichen XY Ungeost (File XY Unsolved), which had been running for 17 years. Utilizing photos of wanted suspects, crime-scene videos and studio appeals for help, each 45-minute Crimewatch episode has three crimes deemed most suitable for reconstruction by researchers. The monthly series has been seen by nine-million viewers, featured over 150 cases and prompted over 50 arrests since January 1997.
‘When it comes to [pre-taped] reconstructions, we adhere to a straightforward legal process,’ says series editor Seetha Kumar. ‘After selecting specific cases for reconstruction, we visit the crime scene, we meet with investigating officers and we gather information from the victim, their friends or family. The director then writes the script and casts actors.’
At the other end of the spectrum, there are ‘crime busting’ shows which get down and dirty on the daily lives of police patrol officers. One such is Fox’s cops, from L.A.-based Langley Productions, which swaps actors, scripts and narrators for a camera which follows the officers on their escapades.
‘We merely ride along with the officers,’ says cops executive producer John Langley about the series, now enjoying its tenth season ‘Instead of becoming a part of the story, we chase down police officers who are pursuing criminals – something which can be difficult when you’re carrying a massive camera.’
He says cameramen have run into clotheslines and fallen into holes. One even got hit in the head with a two-by-four while officers were trying to break up a rowdy party. The producers would not pin down a specific budget for cops, but did say it’s ‘under us$500,000 per episode.’
For prodcos determined to bring the gritty and sometimes traumatic realities of daily police work into the living room, there are important legal issues. ‘Under the First Amendment, news corporations can air anything and say, ‘Hey, this is the news’, but as documentarians, we’re not considered to be the news,’ says Langley. ‘So people have to sign releases if they want us to show their faces. If their faces appear distorted or fuzzy, they either haven’t signed releases because they don’t want to be seen, or things are moving along so rapidly that we haven’t had time to secure the appropriate documentation.’
Says Dave Bell, exec producer of QRZ Media’s syndicated half-hour series, LAPD: Life on the Beat, ‘Many people sign releases simply because they want to be on tv – even though they’ve committed a felony in many instances. Evidently, they want the world to know they’re real bad.’
Like cops (and on ‘one-tenth’ its per-episode budget) lapd’s real-life stories are told through the eyes of a camera which tracks Los Angeles crime-fighters. Viewers catch a glimpse of the daily lives of swat teams, vice, narcotics, beach patrol, bomb squads and canine units. ‘A year-and-a-half ago,’ says Bell, ‘we had a shoot-out between lapd officers and two gunmen at a bank in North Hollywood. An entire week of segments concentrated on that incident, thanks to an on-the-spot crew.’
A world away from Los Angeles, u.k.-based itv recently aired Optima TV’s Police, Camera, Action!, a series highlighting the police campaign against dangerous motorists. Meanwhile, the bbc’s £400,000 four-part series The Force focused on Britain’s Thames Valley Police, which patrols towns like Oxford and Milton Keynes.
‘People are excited about being behind-the-scenes of police work,’ says Force producer Sam Collyns, ‘but we wanted to take them beyond the speeding cars and instead highlight the nature of the officers’ work.’
To that end, one particular episode featured a series of face-to-face formal confrontations between offenders, their families, victims and police. ‘Thames Valley police adopted this idea from Australia,’ says Collyns. ‘It’s usually used for petty criminals such as shoplifters, but the police believe that it’s effective in preventing petty criminals from committing more serious crimes in later life. So we ran these meetings for about ten minutes without commentary.’
In a case where a young teenager had sprayed graffiti on the exterior of a government building, the meeting involved the teenager, his mother and a representative of the local council. ‘We see the embarrassed mother, the angry council member and the teenager, who is forced to confront his actions and the consequences,’ says Collyns. ‘It may not sound like the most serious offense, but it’s hoped that this experience will prevent him from re-offending in the future.’