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Resurrected reality TV series ‘Cops’ to return to Spokane County despite local, nationwide critiques

By Nick Gibson, The Spokesman-Review
Published: June 22, 2024, 1:00pm

SPOKANE — The reality television show “Cops,” which has faced national scrutiny in recent years for its depiction of law enforcement, will return to the region this summer to film alongside Spokane County Sheriff’s Office deputies stationed in Spokane Valley and unincorporated areas of the county.

Participating in the filming will help them fill the roughly 35 vacant positions at the agency, according to figures provided by Sheriff’s Office spokesman Mark Gregory.

But critics, including two sitting county commissioners, worry the show will portray Spokane County and its residents in an inaccurate, negative light, and may inappropriately turn serious situations into entertainment.

Sheriff John Nowels has agreed to allow Langley Productions, the production company behind the reality show, to ride along and film deputies stationed at the Spokane Valley Police Department for eight weeks starting July 12. Crews will also follow deputies in unincorporated areas of the county for roughly four weeks, starting Aug. 14.

The Spokane County Commissioners unanimously approved the agreement Tuesday, but not without Commissioners Amber Waldref and Chris Jordan, the lone Democrats on the board, sharing their concerns over hosting the program.

As an elected official, Nowels had the power to enter into the agreement on behalf of his department, noted Chris Anderson, Spokane County Attorney. The commissioners’ action Tuesday was to approve the measures in the agreement that would mutually protect the county and the production company from liability after assessing potential risks to the county.

Nowels told the commissioners “Cops” has been an important recruitment tool for his office, echoing what his former boss and predecessor Ozzie Knezovich often touted as a benefit of participating in the show.

The department has been featured on the program intermittently over the past 20 years or so, and filmed in Spokane County most recently in the fall of 2020.

“It increases our reach and demonstrates to our community the professionalism and the excellent work of our sheriff’s office deputies,” Nowels said. “So when I have to weigh the positives and the negatives, they have a reach that I cannot match in any other way.”

Undersheriff Kevin Richey told the commissioners last week, when the idea of the agreement was first publicly floated, that the department hears from new hires frequently that they became interested in joining the sheriff’s office after seeing the agency on “Cops.”

“I know we have a handful of pretty funny episodes,” Richey said, before Spokane County Commission Chair Mary Kuney corrected him to say “entertaining.”

Jordan challenged the notion “Cops” was an effective recruitment tool ahead of the vote .

“It’s not a personal priority for me,” Jordan said of the filming. “One priority that I do have, and I think the board as a whole has, is the need for additional recruitment for law enforcement officers. I haven’t personally seen any data to suggest that this particular TV show is a recruitment engine for law enforcement.”

Jordan said he has a lot of respect for the work law enforcement officers do to protect and serve the community, noting he worked alongside them frequently when working child safety cases during his stint as an attorney with Washington’s Attorney General. But he struggles to see the value in having “Cops” or any TV crew ride along with Spokane County deputies.

“I struggle with the idea of turning some serious situations and that serious work into an entertainment product for a private entity that would presumably profit, or seek to sell TV shows or advertisements with that content,” Jordan said.

Waldref raised concerns last week and Tuesday over how the show may cast a negative light on the region and community members “sometimes at their worst moments.”

“I do have some concerns with the ‘Cops’ TV shows, in just how they tend to choose only certain incidents to show,” Waldref said ahead of the vote. “Personally, I don’t think it’s a priority for me that we would have that filming happen. I feel like it doesn’t always put our community in the best light, but I respect that the sheriff would like to have that done.”

Waldref and Jordan’s concerns touch on criticisms the show has faced for years, nationally and here in Spokane.

The pushback to “Cops” and shows like it appeared to reach a boiling point in 2020, amid the nationwide protests over police brutality following the murder of George Floyd by now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Paramount Network canceled “Cops” in June that year after 33 years on air. The program has since been revived by Fox Nation a year later.

Before concerns over the program became national news, Spokane officials like former councilman and Superior Court judge Breean Beggs were sharing their grievances with how the city was depicted and perceived violations of the privacy of its residents. In 2018, the Spokane City Council adopted a law that all but banned reality shows involving the police.

Beggs told The Spokesman-Review at the time that the show was bad for tourism, failed to portray the many calm interactions police have on a daily basis and sensationalized police work.

“Those are the issues,” Beggs said. “It’s not the issue of showing police working hard. That’s great.”

Under the municipal code, it is a civil infraction for “Cops” or a similar show to air footage of a citizen on TV without their permission. Any Spokane officers featured on the show would need approval from the chief of police, and for the show to film in city limits it would have to get a Spokane business license and a $1 million liability insurance policy.

Knezovich was a strong proponent of the program, describing it as an accurate portrayal of what deputies deal with, “despite what some anti-law enforcement activists and those in the media want you to believe,” he told the newspaper in 2020.

Knezovich, who spoke on the “Running from Cops” podcast that heavily features Spokane, was disappointed when the program was canceled, saying “Cops” portrayed realities some are uncomfortable with and was an important transparency tool.

But critics have argued for years that the program fails to accurately portray the more mundane aspects of police work, like building relationships in the community, filing paperwork and processing evidence. Instead, the show tends to center on violent crimes, police chases and low-level drug offenses.

An investigative podcast released a year before the show was dropped by Paramount found much more systemic issues with “Cops.”

In a review of hundreds of episodes, the creators of “Running from COPS” found the show glorifies aggressive policing tactics, reinforced racial stereotypes and depicts law enforcement agencies only how they want to be depicted.

Langley Productions grants editing authority to each of the police departments and sheriff’s offices with which it works. The sheriff’s office will be able to review footage before it airs, and suggest edits “for purposes of accuracy, protection of nonpublic information and investigatory techniques and otherwise for the protection of the public trust,” according to a copy of the agreement.

“LP agrees to abide by the determination of the Department and to remove or revise portions of the segment as the Department deems necessary,” the agreement reads.

That level of control is one of the benefits of participating that Richey shared with the commissioners last week. Another is that those who appear on the show must give their consent to Langley Productions beforehand.

“They’ll come out and shoot hundreds of hours of film, and every person who’s on that film has to consent,” Richey said. “They go around and talk to anyone that has been contacted or arrested, or in the background during a contact, and they get consent from every single one of them.

“And if one person objects to being on the show, they scrap the footage. They don’t use it.”

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The creators of “Running from COPS” spoke with nearly a dozen individuals who have appeared on the show, with most of them saying they either did not consent, were under the influence and therefore did not consent knowingly, or were coerced into signing by the production company and law enforcement.

Kuney said the legal consent aspect is one reason why she was supportive of the TV show returning to Spokane County, on top of the recruitment and transparency benefits.

“I think for the Sheriff’s department, it shows what a great job they do, and how they really do try to help the citizens,” Kuney said.

The podcast also alleged merely having the presence of a film crew nearby would motivate officers and deputies to take actions they otherwise wouldn’t to create entertaining segments.

The creator of the podcast, Dan Taberski, told the Inlander in 2019 that may have been the case when Spokane County deputy Sam Turner collided with a suspect on a bicycle with his squad car during a filming session in 2017.

In 2019, Spokane County Risk Management agreed to pay the cyclist, Austen Sullivan, then 22, $25,000 if he agreed not to file a lawsuit. The only footage of the incident captured by a “Cops” cameraman was reviewed in an internal affairs investigation that alleged Turner lied in reports about how the ordeal transpired and used excessive force.

The Spokane Police Department also launched a criminal investigation into Turner at the request of Knezovich and Nowels, but charges were never pursued by the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office.

After both investigations, the overriding conclusion was that it was unclear who was at fault for the crash between Turner and Sullivan. Knezovich said the case came down to competing narratives: from what the deputies saw, the inebriated Sullivan swerved into Turner’s car, not the other way around.

Commissioner Al French said last week he was not concerned about the region being cast in a negative light, and that it would be good to show a nationwide audience that laws are being enforced in Spokane County.

“With the crime rate being what it is across the country, knowing there’s a community that actually still arrests criminals is probably not a bad thing,” French said.

At the same meeting, Commissioner Josh Kerns told Richey he was supportive, and that there have not been any issues stemming from past participation.

“I think it’s great,” Kerns said. “We’ve done it, like you said, for over 20 years. We haven’t seen an issue with doing it. I say, go for it.”

(c)2024 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

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