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FEATURE ARTICLE     May 25, 1999

Frank Biafora, Ph.D., St. John’s University, Department of Sociology


Robert Costello, M.A., J.D., Nassau Community College, Department of Criminal Justice







This was a particularly interesting case as it highlighted the inherent conflict between the First Amendment right to free press and Fourth Amendment’s century old principles of respect for the privacy of the home.












It became increasingly clear by the late 1960s that there existed a chasm between the professional model of police response and the public.



















Reality TV helps to ensure that the behaviors of the police are on target with society’s values and norms.


Censoring the Press: The Supreme Court Rules On Media Ride-Alongs
by Frank Biafora and Robert Costello

   A team of United States Marshals and Montgomery County (Maryland) Police officers executed a search warrant and entered the home of Charles and Geraldine Wilson in the early morning hours of April 16, 1992. They intended to arrest Dominic Wilson, the son of Charles and Geraldine. Dominic had violated probation on prior felony charges of robbery, theftussc.JPG (11991 bytes) and assault with intent to rob.

   Charles and Geraldine were sleeping when the officers entered their home. Charles ran into the living room to confront the officers and the police believing Charles to be Dominic subdued him while Geraldine watched in a bathrobe. After confirming Charles was not Dominic and conducting a protective sweep, the police left the house.

   This may sound like an ordinary execution of a search warrant. However, one vital fact must be mentioned: a reporter and a photographer from The Washington Post participated in the raid. The US Marshals invited the pair of reporters to accompany them as part of a regular media ride-along policy.

   The Wilsons sued the US Marshals who executed the arrest warrant and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department under (42 U.S.C. 1983) contending that the officers’ actions in bringing members of the media to observe and record the execution of the warrant violated their constitutional right to be "…secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."

   On May 24, 1999, the United States Supreme Court agreed with the Wilsons, ruling it a violation of the Fourth Amendment to allow members of the media to accompany and record law enforcement officers during the execution of an arrest warrant in a private residence. Wilson v. Layne, Deputy United States Marshal, et al., 119 S.Ct. 1692 (1999). This was a particularly interesting case as it highlighted the inherent conflict between the First Amendment right to free press and Fourth Amendment’s century old principles of respect for the privacy of the home. In the end the court ruled that the First Amendment does not grant reporters and photographers an absolute right to go anywhere at any time in pursuit of a story. The constitutional decision in this case, as authored by Chief Justice Rehnquist, to limit the scope of media "ride-alongs" is also important as it again sparked national debate on the boundaries and responsibilities of the media in our society.

   How will this Supreme Court decision affect our nations voyeuristic thirst for real-life crime drama, particularly as found in reality-based TV shows in the genre of COPS, Stories of the HWY Patrol, Court TV and others? While some of these programs, as this latest constitutional ruling suggests, may infringe on citizens’ right to privacy, we contend that these program nevertheless play an important role for our understanding of the legal system and law enforcement practices. Moreover, John Langley, the producer of COPS, contends that this ruling will have little impact on the format of his program.

   There is no doubt that the media provides powerful and long-lasting images. In the United States, the publics’ understanding of the police role is in many ways directly correlated with Hollywood’s latest crime movie or televisions latest cop-drama. Police scholar Egon Bittner appropriately observed a quarter century ago that while the police were one of the best know government institutions, they were one of the least understood. Clearly, the fictional images such as the calm, almostJACK_WEB.gif (24477 bytes) robot-like Sgt. Joe Friday to the renegade, unaccountable and lethal Dirty Harry have served to distort the public’s perception of the true nature of policing.1 While part of the public’s misperceptions of the police may be the unintended consequences of fictional characterizations, evidence also suggests that this lack of clarity results from the police themselves. Historically, corruption plagued the police institution for a variety of reasons. In response to this pervasive problem, the professional model was created by police visionaries such as O.W. Wilson and August Vollmer. The professional model of policing achieved wide acceptance as it had a number of benefits for law enforcement including independence, professionalism and crime control. Over time, however, this model fostered a culture were the public would eventually question the tactics and functions of the police in their communities. This evaluation also led to a general dissatisfaction and mistrust by many of the relationship between the police and the public.

   Television programs popular during the professional era were indicative of this underlying law enforcement philosophy and they also served to adam-12sm.JPG (18883 bytes)reinforce the public’s perception of police culture. Television shows such as Dragnet and Adam-12 portrayed officers as highly professional, detached crime fighters (the epitome of reform era policing that sought to "get the facts, just the facts") and who always found the "bad guys". Former Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker during an interview in 1962 said "the television program Dragnet was one of the great instruments to give the people of the United States a picture of the policeman as he really is. It was most authentic. We participated in the editing of the scripts and in their filming. This program showed the true portrait of the policeman as a hard-working, selfless man, willing to go out and brave all sorts of hazards and working long hours to protect the community."2

   Aware of their increased insulation from the public and a growing dissatisfaction with traditional, institutionalized patrol policies and rigid investigation procedures, law enforcement agencies throughout the United States began to dismantle the traditional professional model of policing in favor of more citizen friendly and prevention-based approaches. But these changes did not come easy or necessarily voluntary. Ironically, history has shown that the structured organizational controls and policies that were necessary to overcome the corruption and political influences characteristic of the spoils era, e.g., Eliot Ness and the Untouchables, were some of the same reasons for the failures of the police in the 1960s and 1970s.

   America was in the midst of reflection and sociopolitical turmoil in the 1960s and 1970s. It was during this cultural context that the police were responding to a baby boomer generation symbolized by recreational drug use and peaceful protests; a civil rights movement in search of basic and equal rights for racial minorities and women; and a society torn between patriotism and protest over the war in Vietnam. It became increasingly clear by the late 1960s that there existed a chasm between the professional model of police response and the public. Soon, trust in law enforcement was being replaced with a growing suspicion, frustration and anger.

   Television, music and other forms of media at the time were a significant driving force that helped to escort change in law enforcement policy. Horrifying images of racial beatings in the South and violent responses of law enforcement to wartime protestors were regular images on the evening news. The music of Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, and a long list of other artists were masters at turning folk lyrics into symbolic social commentary. The culmination of these events of the 1960s led to a Presidential inquiry and the now widely recited 1967 report of the President’s Commission of Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. This report recommended many changes. Among the most notable and relevant to this discussion included: seeking increased communications between the police and community; increasing the responsiveness of the police to community concerns; fairly and objectively dealing with complaints against police officers; increasing the numbers of minorities in the ranks; creating mechanisms to facilitate increased citizen input to the police, and; facilitating community involvement on issues related to crime deterrence and apprehensions.

   Some of the specific strategies that have emerged over the last 20 years to reduce the police-citizen gap have included community education campaigns, and community oriented policing and problem oriented policing. A third strategy, however, that is most relevant to this discussion, was the increased media/police collaboration and the presentation of real-life crime on prime time. Each of these strategies have been widely popular and successful at disseminating information and educating the public. They have also helped to increase police and citizen interactions and communication as well as decrease the mystery surrounding law enforcement. Nevertheless, as we now know, the Supreme Court has called into question the third leg of this tripod strategy, i.e., the boundaries of reality TV in policing.

   The last decade has been witness to a growing number of reenactmentamw.JPG (14075 bytes) dramas and reality TV shows. Some of the most popular of the former include Manhunter, and America’s Most Wanted, where crime scene reenactments are presented. Most recently, this type of television genre has given way to real life programming where video cameras are used to capture police work in action. Some of the more common of these reality programs include Stories of the Highway Patrol, and the widely popular program "COPS."

   On March 11, 1989, the FOX network premiered COPS, an American version of the very popular British Broadcasting Company’s Police.3 The premise of the show is to follow police officers in the office, on stakeouts, on raids and to a lesser extent, at home. The series focused first on the members of the Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Department, then moved to other locations, mostly in the United States. COPS is a four time Emmy Award-nominated series and received the American Television Award in the category of Best Reality Show in 1993. The success of the series, with its relatively low production costs, led to a proliferation of similar programs such as American Detective, FBI: The Untold Stories, Stories of the Highway Patrol, Secret Service and True Detective and others.

   The authors of this paper suggest that reality TV, in addition to being merely entertaining, has helped to reduce the distance between the police and the public. Furthermore, these types of programs have given law enforcement in the United States an openness and accountability to the viewing public. Reality TV helps to ensure that the behaviors of the police are on target with society’s values and norms. But, as quickly as reality-TV has gained in popularity, the high court has ruled that the media and police collaboration may have crossed over the boundaries of the constitution.

   Is the historically symbiotic relationship between police and the makers of reality TV shows forever changed by the Court’s unanimous decision? As stated earlier, the producer of COPS, John Langley, says it will be business as usual at his program. However, experts predict that shows like COPS will have to alter their practices. Prior to the ruling, production and camera crews would accompany police through an entire raid and then obtain releases or permission to use the footage. Now reality TV in order to go along with police inside a home would have to obtain permission from the homeowner prior to the raid which is unlikely since the element of surprise is vital to police.

   The police/media collaboration was well intentioned but ultimately grew out of control resulting in the violation of the rights of people. Both the reality TV creators and police benefited from this relationship. The producers received real life drama that resulted in high ratings and high revenue from advertisements with little financial overhead needed for such shows. In addition, the police, by using this forum put their message out, received free publicity and demonstrated how intense crime fighting can be.

   The Supreme Court has put forth their opinion regarding media ride alongs and popular culture. It remains to be seen how this decision will impact popular shows like COPS that relied on those themes the court has outlawed. However, the court has laid down the challenge for the next generation of policing shows - to further the knowledge of policing without trampling upon constitutional safeguards.


1. Bittner, Egon(1974). "Florence Nightingale in Pursuit of Willie Sutton: A Theory of the Police", in Herbert Jacob, ed., The Potential for Reform of Criminal Justice.

2. Skolnick, J. & Fyfe, J. (1994). Above the law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force. New York: The Free Press.

3. Sparrow, Malcolm, Mark Moore and David Kennedy(1990). Beyond 911: A New Era for Policing. New York: BasicBooks.

Posted November 3, 1999

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