After George Floyd’s murder, reality policing shows were cancelled, and network execs promised they’d never be back. But three years later, they’re back—and thriving.
This story was produced in partnership with Slate.
In the post-George Floyd summer of 2020, reality policing shows like “Cops” and “Live PD” faced not just a reckoning but an outright extinction. A&E cut its “Live PD” dynasty which included spinoffs like “Live PD: Wanted” and “Live PD Presents: Women on Patrol.” “Cops” was dropped by the Paramount Network. Chris McCarthy, president of Paramount’s parent company, ViacomCBS, called the decision to drop “Cops” a “no brainer.” “It doesn’t matter what the loss is,” he said. “We can’t be in this space and we can’t be part of the solution if we’re in this space.”
It was a Berlin Wall moment for critics of reality policing shows that they said represented “copaganda” at its worst —policing propaganda that encouraged officers to be aggressive for camera crews who showed people at their most vulnerable to millions. “These reality police shows quite literally ask us to take the perspective of police officers” often during police violence and arrests,” said Stewart Coles, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois.
The reality policing cancellations also represented a rare moment of tangible impact amid DEI initiatives in Hollywood that would quickly prove to be doomed and vapid racial justice statement-making. “We can replace our windows and handbags,” wrote the CEO of Coach’s parent company, “but we cannot bring back George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and too many others.”
But the industry’s change of heart was short-lived. By fall, Langley Productions was back at filming “Cops” for an international audience, and the show resumed airing on the Fox Nation streaming service in October 2021. In the summer of 2022, the Amazon/MGM-owned Big Fish Entertainment debuted “On Patrol: Live” on the Reelz cable network.
The return of reality policing is evident in the pages of an ongoing copyright infringement lawsuit filed by A&E in federal court in Manhattan. The lawsuit claims that “Live PD” was simply relaunched as “On Patrol: Live,” violating the network’s copyright. “Live PD” averaged 3 million viewers on weekends in 2020, and within weeks of the “On Patrol: Live” launch on the Reelz network, the show had more than 1.8 billion viewing minutes. It became the most popular show for adults on Friday and Saturday nights on Reelz. The massive viewership for “On Patrol: Live” propelled Reelz into a top-twenty-five cable network position for the first time in its history. A&E wasn’t going to let a new version go unchallenged; the lawsuit was filed after the fifth week of “On Patrol: Live” in August of 2022 after the network sent a series of cease-and-desist letters to stop the show from airing.
The lawsuit claims that Big Fish intentionally “confused the public into believing that On Patrol: Live is Live PD.” The lawsuit just went into discovery after a federal judge denied Big Fish’s motion to dismiss. “Because On Patrol: Live copies nearly every single element in the same manner, coordination, and arrangement as Live PD, the Court does not hesitate to find that the works are substantially similar,” the judge wrote in her decision. “On look alone, the two shows are virtually indistinguishable.” MGM said it did “not wish to comment for the piece,” and A&E declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.
In a court filing, however, attorneys for Big Fish wrote that the lawsuit represented A&E’s “hypocritical attempt to claim ownership over a show and concept it cast aside and abandoned.” They also argued, incredibly, that “On Patrol: Live” is part of a post-George Floyd moment of police transparency. “The outpouring of public consciousness arising from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others underscored the importance of the public being able to see, understand, and exercise oversight over law enforcement activity,” they wrote.
The notion of “On Patrol: Live” as a champion of racial justice and law enforcement transparency is hard to square with the history of reality policing. On top of Floyd’s murder, it was another on-camera police killing, after all, that triggered the cancellation of “Live PD” in 2020. In June 2020, police in Austin released footage of the death of Javier Ambler at the hands of sheriff’s deputies in neighboring Williamson County. During a March 2019 arrest, Ambler, 40, told deputies that he had congestive heart failure and couldn’t breathe. The deputies tased Ambler, he begged “please, save me” and then became unresponsive—all as “Live PD” cameras rolled. The Austin American-Statesman found that the sheriff rewarded deputies—including two involved in Ambler’s death—for aggressiveness. An analysis by the newsroom found that deputies were also more likely to engage in dangerous car chases while working with the program.
In 2021, two deputies were indicted for manslaughter. But a police investigator testified that Big Fish did not honor a subpoena to turn over the footage of Ambler’s death; A&E said it was later destroyed. Reporting by The Marshall Project in 2020 found that Big Fish appeared to work with law enforcement to edit footage, though Big Fish said “there are no incidents where production covered up for the police—and there is nothing to be gained by protecting anyone.”
The former Williamson County sheriff and a former county attorney are facing felony charges for not securing the show’s recording for investigators looking into Ambler’s death. (The criminal cases are ongoing.)
In December 2021, Williamson County settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Ambler’s family for $5 million. The family and their attorneys declined to comment; they said details of the settlement prohibit them from talking to reporters.
A&E and Big Fish’s alleged conduct around the Ambler killing is indicative of longstanding problems in reality policing. In 2010, a 7-year-old Black girl was sleeping on a couch when police burst into her home, threw a flashbang in the living room, and shot her in the head, killing her. In a lawsuit against A&E filed shortly after her death, her family argued that the presence of the network’s “The First 48” camera crew ratcheted up the tension on the scene and contributed to the girl’s death.
In 2014, a Miami New Times investigation found that police often embellished the findings of their investigations for “The First 48”; at least 15 men were later released after being charged with murder. In 2015, attorneys for a man charged in a death penalty-eligible triple murder case in New Orleans argued that the show’s producers withheld video that would benefit their client. “I wish that the city would never contract with ‘The First 48,’ and I hope in the future they would think through that,” presiding judge Laurie White said.
Likewise, since its first season in 2013, former Houston prosecutor Kelly Siegler’s show “Cold Justice” on the Oxygen network has been hit with defamation lawsuits or claims that the show worked with law enforcement to arrest people — later cleared of charges — in order to create good narrative television. Siegler’s integrity as a former prosecutor has also been repeatedly challenged in court; in 2020, a district court judge found that she withheld evidence and provided favors to prison informants in exchange for fabricating false murder confessions in a capital case. (The conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th circuit later restored the defendant’s death sentence).
“On Patrol: Live” has similar issues. The Richland County Sheriff’s Department in South Carolina has been with the show since the show’s early days as “Live PD”; one of its deputy sheriffs co-hosts “On Patrol: Live” with Dan Abrams, the show’s executive producer. In 2015, a Richland County deputy threw a Black teenage girl across a classroom after she refused to leave class during a dispute over a cellphone. The deputy was fired but never charged. In March 2022, the Richland County sheriff shot and killed a Black man during a mental health crisis. And a lawsuit filed this year cited body-camera recordings of Richland deputies entering a woman’s home while her family was sleeping to “scare the hell out of her.” The Paterson Police Department in New Jersey—featured in the show’s first season—was taken over by the state attorney general in March after a local anti-violence activist was killed during a home welfare check, and after years of incidents in which officers stole from residents during illegal searches.
Siegler, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, and the Patterson Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.
But even though potential harm from reality policing is neither abstract nor unlikely—a new study from a Harvard public policy researcher found that “Live PD” cameras increase arrests for low-level “quality-of-life” offenses that ended up targeting lower-income communities by nearly 20 percent—they receive a fraction of the attention from copaganda critics as scripted police TV.
This year, Abrams’ Law & Crime Network secured a major television distribution deal and acquired additional true crime channels on YouTube. In May, “Law & Order” producer Wolf Entertainment capitalized on the success of Oxygen’s “Cold Justice” and added “Texas Justice with Kelly Siegler” to the fall/winter lineup for parent company NBCUniversal. Fox Nation recently debuted “Crime Cam 24/7,” a show centered on surveillance footage obtained by law enforcement with narration and commentary from “On Patrol: Live” co-host Sean “Sticks” Larkin. “On Patrol: Live,” meanwhile, transitioned into its second season and surpassed its 100th episode as a part of a 90-episode renewal that will take the program into 2024. And fueled by the success of “On Patrol: Live,” Reelz inked a distribution deal with streamer Peacock.
Three years after George Floyd was killed, the resurrection of reality policing is all but complete, to devastating consequences.