‘Live PD’ is canceled, but spin-off show raises legal concerns in Miami criminal court

·7 min read

A police report lays out the arrest of Melvin Brooks: On a May night in Homestead, he ran a stop sign and led a cop on a high-speed chase before finally pulling over.

Brooks “spontaneously stated that he was scared because cops are out here killing people and that he was trying to drive to the police station,” Homestead Officer Gabrielle Leal wrote in an arrest report.

But Leal’s account left something out. Cops that night were accompanied by a crew filming a spin-off series of the recently canceled, but controversial, reality TV show “Live PD.” It was not until mid-September that, during a deposition in Brooks’ ongoing case, Leal mentioned that a video crew had been on hand for the arrest.

The show, called “Florida Heat,” never wound up airing — although one pre-recorded segment featuring Homestead police aired on “Live PD” in April.

The revelation of the filming has spurred the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office to send a sweeping public-records request to Homestead police, to get all show footage of any arrests from the department — one of the few in South Florida that had not equipped officers with body-worn cameras.

Public Defender Carlos Martinez, who called the Homestead police “tone deaf” for participating in the show given the national calls for police reform, said he is concerned that his office hasn’t been given access to critical evidence in cases brought to the courts by the department.

“Videos may have been taken that impact cases that have been filed, or even in which people have taken a plea on,” Martinez said in an interview. “Anything that was filmed that involved the police doing questioning, stopping anybody, arresting anybody, searching anybody — that is all relevant and necessary for the defense of the cases.”

As of Monday, Homestead had not replied to Martinez’s request, which also asked for all contracts and emails about the show, as well as the names of the film crews, the officers they rode with and the dates they tagged along. No subpoenas or requests have yet been issued to Big Fish Entertainment, the shows’ production company.

A Homestead police spokesman, Fernando Morales, said Big Fish rode along with officers for “a couple months.” He said the department is not sure how many arrests were filmed, adding that lawyers have to get footage from the production company.

“The city of Homestead is not the custodian of the video,” Morales said.

Homestead’s police chief, Al Rolle, declined to comment. Representatives of Big Fish also declined to comment.

Homestead Police Chief Al Rolle talks during a press conference at the district attorney’s office about an incident involving a Homestead police officer accused of shoving a handcuffed suspect into a wall, Wednesday, August 7, 2019.
Homestead Police Chief Al Rolle talks during a press conference at the district attorney’s office about an incident involving a Homestead police officer accused of shoving a handcuffed suspect into a wall, Wednesday, August 7, 2019.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office said it too first learned of the filming during the Sept. 15 deposition.

“Since that time, the State Attorney’s Office has received information from the department that only one episode was aired from filming, they have no specific knowledge of the exact extent of the filming, and have no information regarding whether the filming done involved any pending or potential criminal cases or defendants,” said spokesman Ed Griffith.

“Live PD” was a highly rated reality show on the A&E network that followed patrol officers from departments across the country. The show, which topped basic cable ratings on Friday and Saturday nights, had become A&E’s centerpiece program. But the network abruptly canceled the program in June as the nation grappled with protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and how law-enforcement officers are depicted in popular media.

Live PD’s most glaring entanglement was in Williamson County, Texas, a suburb of Austin, where the show beginning in 2017 featured a popular, if publicity-hungry, sheriff named Robert Chody. The department’s relationship with the reality show came under national scrutiny in March 2019 after a film crew was on hand when deputies shot Javier Ambler with a Taser after a car chase. The a 40-year-old Black father later died.

In September, a grand jury indicted Chody for evidence tampering after it was revealed “Live PD” destroyed footage of the chase. It is not uncommon for TV production companies to destroy raw footage that is not used, although it is unclear if footage from the chase was ever planned for use in an episode.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, the show also drew criticism from Texas defense lawyers and Williamson County’s district attorney. The reason: concerns about whether video shot by “Live PD” crews should be considered evidence and turned over to prosecutors and defense attorneys in criminal cases.

After the Ambler death, District Attorney Shawn Dick issued a memo to the sheriff’s office mandating that deputies, in making arrests or investigating cases involving “Live PD,” note any film crew members on scene and preserve all raw footage for prosecutors.

In the case of Homestead and “Florida Heat,” no similar memos were crafted by Miami-Dade prosecutors because they did not know abut the police department’s participation in the show until that September deposition. By then, film crews had already stopped riding along.

Cable police reality shows, while extremely popular, have sometimes proven problematic in the criminal-justice system.

A&E’s hit show “The First 48” followed Miami homicide detectives during the initial stages of murder investigations. Over 113 episodes, Miami’s detectives proved to be among the most popular on the program. But defense attorneys frequently raised questions about the involvement of film crews, while using episodes from the show to pick apart inconsistencies in police reports.

In 2015, a Miami appeals court upheld a judge’s decision to throw out key evidence because of First 48 footage. The judge cited concerns about “what is real versus the result of reality television” after a detective admitted to “play acting” certain scenes.

Also that year, a federal civil jury awarded $850,000 to a man named Taiwan Smart, who said he was falsely arrested for murder by homicide detectives who spent more time “‘posing for TV shots” than doing police work.

Miami cut ties with the show amid concerns it focused too heavily on violence in Miami’s Black neighborhoods.

‘The First 48’ cameraman frames a shot of Miami Homicide Detective Eutimio Cepero.
‘The First 48’ cameraman frames a shot of Miami Homicide Detective Eutimio Cepero.

Homestead Police entered into the contract with Big Fish Entertainment, the producer of “Live PD” and “Florida Heat,” in December.

Florida Heat was slated to begin airing in July, and was to feature departments across the state, including the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office. It has since been shelved.

Under the contract between Big Fish and Homestead Police, the department was allowed to review any pre-recorded segments to ensure it did not compromise officer security or reveal “classified information.” The contract, obtained through a public-records request, also gave the agency “sole and exclusive” ownership of the footage.

One segment ran on “Live PD” on April 17, but packaged as part of the upcoming “Florida Heat” show. The segment, viewed by the Miami Herald, did not feature Brooks, the man who was arrested for fleeing.

Rather, it featured Officer Claybourne Jones finding a bloodied, dazed man who ran away from a nasty car wreck lying under a car in a neighbor’s lawn. The man, who spoke Spanish and had his face blurred, was a passenger, not the driver.

The segment showed Jones, in Spanish, calmly helping the man into a sitting position. “Turned out that he had an in-state pick-up warrant,” Jones explained to the camera.

It was unclear if Homestead police ended up arresting the man, who was seen handcuffed. “The officer is completing the reports right now and that’s pretty much it,” Jones said in the roughly two-minute segment originally filmed in March.

The Homestead police department, as many others across Florida and the country, have come under criticism for how they interact with members of minority communities. Morales, the police spokesman, said the city has approved body-worn cameras and they will be deployed Jan. 1.

In June, during the height of police-brutality protests sparked by Floyd’s death, community members rallied in Homestead to demand answers for the 2015 shooting death of Edward Foster. Prosecutors this month cleared Homestead Officer Anthony Green of criminal wrongdoing, saying Foster pointed a gun at the cop.

Morales, the Homestead police spokesman, said the department agreed to participate in the show because it provided insight into the hard work of officers.

“I don’t see anything negative about this,” Morales. “It shed a light on police work.”

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