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Police TV documentaries: Good, bad or risky?

As the second series of a show following the development of probationers draws to a close, Ian Weinfass takes a look at potential impacts of being featured on prime time as part of the job
Published - 06/09/2016 By - Ian Weinfass - Police Oracle

From 24 Hours in Police Custody to Police Interceptors to 999: What’s Your Emergency to Traffic Cops it seems there are few TV formats more popular than fly-on-the-wall police documentaries.

Surrey Police’s head of communications Ruth Shulver recently said in an online blog that the force receives almost one request per week from production companies asking them to take part in one.

But, while popular, are they necessarily a good thing?

Former Crimewatch presenter Nick Ross, founder of the Jill Dando Institute for Crime Science at University College London, has worked in broadcasting for decades.

He told “I would have thought the popularity of these shows with viewers is obvious: drama. Their public benefit is quite another question.

“I doubt they are helpful either to good policing or to informed democracy, not least because of their tendency to entrench a view of policing as 'us versus them'.

“Some, like Police Interceptors, have little public value and are essentially cheap thrills. Television-makers are drawn to low-budget and unchallenging material.

“But fly-on-the-wall docs can be revealing. Think back to Roger Graef's series on Thames Valley Police [called Police] which exposed old-fashioned attitudes to rape.”

In Ruth Shulver’s blog on Linkedin, she said Surrey Police agreed to appearing on Britain's Rookie Cops because: “We wanted to encourage people to consider joining us and start a career in policing, we wanted to show the range and complexity of issues our officers and staff deal with and we wanted to show the human face of policing.

“Rookies, we felt, provided that opportunity whereas many of the other requests didn't.”

After episode one, she wrote that there had been increased traffic to the force's recruitment website.

The ITV series her force is taking part in follows a group of probationers from when they take their first steps in police training.

Last year it featured a cohort of Lincolnshire officers, and this year’s series – which concluded last night – shows Surrey probationers in training, on the beat and in their homes.

For the officers involved, what is it like to have a camera crew follow them around while going out to incidents?

Former IT worker PC Ryan Soper is nine months into his probation and starred in last week’s episode, which was filmed a few months ago. He said: “At first you are very much aware they’re there, but I got told to just get on with what I was doing. At times it was a bit like a fly dancing around us, trying to get the best shot and I’m just trying to get on with my job.

“The general public were very aware that cameras were there, on a few occasions I’d turn up at a job and people were looking over my shoulder going ‘What’s going on?’ and I’d be like ‘Oh, sorry, I’ve got a camera crew with me’. You get so used to them being there that you forget to do that.”

Others have spoken about by-standers playing up to the cameras, and having to warn them to leave crime scenes.

Surrey Fed chairman Melanie Warnes agrees that the show is probably good for the force. “It does reveal what happens in the job.

“It’s really brave [to take part as a probationer] and I think it shows people who might be thinking of joining the police that recruits are dealing with very serious things very early on in their careers,” she said.

But others have concerns about the impact of being in a TV documentary on officers who are at such early stages in their careers.

Jon Hassall, chairman of Lincolnshire Police Federation said: “Perhaps I’m an old cynic but I’m not sure they were all given all the information to make a fully informed choice about taking part.

“We’re telling cops not to show out on social media, don’t wear your uniform off duty for security reasons, yet it’s okay to show them with their families on TV? It seems as though we’re saying one thing and doing another.”

He also pointed out that it will be difficult for any of the Rookies to take up a covert role later in their careers.

But PC Soper said the recruits were told about such risks – and he told the production company to mask outside shots of his home as a result. He also said several probationers were able to ask not to be featured on the show because they, for various reasons, decided they no longer wanted to be involved.

Lincs PC Daniel Healey (pictured above, centre) featured in last year’s series, and has now completed his probation.

“I still get recognised to this day,” he said. “Even off duty. You can either get recognised by the criminals or people who have just watched you on TV.

“When you get recognised by criminals you are on your guard a bit preparing for what could happen, but to be fair whenever I’ve been recognised, it’s always been positive, even off the criminals.”

His colleagues who were considering being on the show were given a talk by stars of Police Interceptors, which was then also filmed in the force, about the expected impact on their lives, before deciding if they definitely wanted to go ahead with it.

Some dropped out for various reasons, but PC Healey had no doubt he wanted to continue. “I was interested because I wanted my children to see their dad on TV. They loved it, especially my eldest, because she was old enough to understand what was going on, and she was in it.”

And he is in no doubt about how he felt about it, over a year later: “It was good, I enjoyed it, I would definitely do it again,” he said.

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