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'Cops' in Baltimore: long on TV action short on fair play


America, meet Detective George Cunningham of the Baltimore City Sheriff's Department. He's the guy in the blue jeans with the beard and the bullet-proof vest. He's the guy with the service revolver held in both hands, kicking down the suspect's front door and screaming for them to "get on the ground, on the ground, on the ground!" He's our prime-time hero tonight.

Last week, CNN's "American Agenda" brought images of life in Baltimore to a national audience. Tonight, Baltimore is back in prime time again, as Fox Broadcasting's "Cops" shows local and federal law enforcement officers breaking down doors and arresting fugitives in a compelling but also somewhat troubling special.

"Cops: U.S. Marshals," which airs at 9 tonight on WBFF-TV (Channel 45), is a half-hour distillation of a day spent with federal and local police during "Operation Sunrise," a fugitive manhunt conducted last September in cities on the East Coast. Tonight's show features commando-style arrests in Baltimore, New York, Atlanta and Miami. The Baltimore segment is the longest in the show; it accounts for about 10 of the show's total 22 minutes. Detective Cunningham is the main player in both arrests.

For those readers not familiar with "Cops," it was among the first "reality" shows to photograph and package the more dramatic aspects of day-to-day, real-life police work as prime-time entertainment. Its look is characterized by a jerky hand-held camera bouncing all over the place as police crash through front doors and slam suspects to the ground. Its sound is ambient noise -- shotguns being pumped, babies crying in hallways, police screaming at suspects. The "drama" comes from sitting in on planning sessions as police say how they are going to apprehend a suspect and then accompanying the cops as the actual bust goes down. Throughout, there is dialogue from the police about how dangerous the bust is going to be.

In the first Baltimore segment, Detective Cunningham disguises his voice on the phone to find the whereabouts of a man wanted for armed robbery and then leads the assault on the apartment in Essex where the man is living. In the second arrest,Cunningham tells his fellow officers at a planning session that the fugitive -- a man wanted for first-degree murder -- said he was not going to be taken alive. But Cunningham and the others take him alive and do not hide their pride in their accomplishment.

As entertainment, it works. Tonight's show grabs you from the opening bell and punches a bunch of emotional buttons with its graphic and intense confrontations.

But this is also police work presented as real life, and that means a different set of questions have to be asked. For example, virtually all of the fugitives arrested in the show tonight are persons of color -- African-American or Hispanic -- while most of the police officers are white. Might some viewers incorrectly conclude that persons of color are some how the only ones responsible for crime problems? There is one white fugitive arrested, but he's identified as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, an extremist, not representative of most whites. The producers have failed to make their criminal depictions of persons of color proportionate to the actual numbers in society. They have also failed to give viewers any suggestion that the criminal justice system itself is skewed to arrest and prosecute persons of color more often that whites.

The show also plays fast with civil liberties. A vocal disclaimer at the start of the show tells viewers the people being arrested are only suspects and "considered innocent" until convicted in court.

But that couple of seconds is quickly lost in the drama of the show and police officers calling the suspects "major drug dealers," "shooters" and "bad guys."

"Cops" is good entertainment, but a bad window to the real world. It's fine to celebrate the police, but it needs to be done with more sensitivity and responsibility that this.

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