Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Shawn Vestal: ‘Live PD’ paints Spokane at its ugliest

In this Nov. 3, 2016 photo, a crew from the television program "Live PD," a reality show by the A&E Network, records an officer from the Bridgeport Police Department while on patrol in Bridgeport, Conn. Some law enforcement agencies, including the Bridgeport Police, have ended their agreements to be on the show after local government leaders concluded the national spotlight on criminal activity overshadowed the positive things happening in their hometowns. (Christian Abraham / AP)

On Jan. 26, the TV show “Live PD” turned its cameras to a Spokane Valley police officer answering a call about a troubled woman.

The show’s host noted, with practically a wink, that the woman was “drunk and trying to walk. And let’s just say she was only doing one of them well.”

Delightful! The officer arrived to find a woman lying on the ground by a chain link fence at Lake and Oliver in the Valley. It was about 10 degrees outside. The woman was wearing plastic bags on her feet as socks – to keep her feet dry, she said – and was loudly, laughingly intoxicated.

The officer persuaded her to get in his car to go for a mental health check, but not before some incoherent arguing and cursing. Then, on her way to his car, she bumped into a large utility pole.

“Beep you, pole,” she said, using a well-known synonym for beep.

Twitter was duly entertained.

“This woman in Spokane is tripping balls!!!” wrote one Tweeter.

“Oh, Spokane, you never disappoint … ” wrote yet another.

And, naturally, a fledgling meme was born, if only briefly: the “Beep You Pole Lady.”

It was just another chance for Spokane to seep into the national consciousness as the home of dereliction and sadness. The reality-TV shows “Live PD” and “COPS” have gleaned plenty of footage in working with local police agencies – and have helped fuel an image of the city as a place where a methed-up man stands on every corner, the arms of his T-shirt cut off, bleeding from an ear and blaming the other guy for starting it. A new City Council proposal would put more restrictions on the city’s relationships with the producers of such shows.

One thing’s sure: If that Guardian piece in March bummed you out, with its vision of Spokane as a hopeless, meth zombie hellhole, you should definitely avoid “Live PD” and “COPS.”

‘What Spokane really is like’

The county Sheriff’s Department and Spokane Valley Police Department both participate in “Live PD,” an increasingly popular show that relies on live, real-time – or nearly real time – incidents from departments around the country.

The Spokane Police Department doesn’t work with “Live PD,” but does have a deal with the producers of “COPS,” a relatively venerable show that is more edited and time-delayed.

Police officials say the shows present officers in a light that is positive and informative, helping to show citizens the wide range of dangerous and difficult tasks they face.

“The public loves it,” Knezovich said. “They love the interactions that the (deputies) have with the community, and it’s been the greatest recruiting tool we’ve ever had.”

What about the sense that it presents a distorted picture of Spokane as a drug-fueled domestic violence circus? A place where the Beep You Pole Ladies are lying around drunk on every corner?

“That kind of is Spokane right now,” Knezovich said. “You do have people sleeping on the streets right now. It’s not making Spokane look bad. It’s showing what Spokane is really like right now.”

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said his officers have preferred the COPS experience over the Live PD one, because there is more control and authority built in. Departments can veto the inclusion of footage – but that must be done quickly on Live PD, whereas COPS allows more time and consideration, he said.

But he also sees the show as a chance to help promote a better public understanding of what officers do.

“It really does show the professionalism of our officers,” he said.

Critics of the shows say they derive entertainment, and even comedy, from troubled people at their worst (see the Beep You Pole Lady). Various studies also indicate that they give a distorted picture of crime and the nature of criminal incidents – overrepresenting minorities as criminals, which contributes to systemic bias, and presenting a sense that many more crimes are quickly solved by police responding to minor suspicions that “invariably leads to the incarceration of serious criminals,” in the words of one 2004 paper.

And then there’s just the overall sense that, as the sheriff put is, this is what Spokane is like right now. It may be what the city looks like from the seat of a squad car. But there’s a lot more to what Spokane – city, county and Valley included – is like. A growing number of communities are deciding not to participate in these shows for that very reason.

‘What a dump’

That 2004 paper was quoted in a policy memo written in support of a proposed city ordinance that would put more restrictions on the producers of reality-TV shows working with the police department.

The proposed ordinance, which is set for discussion at the Public Safety Committee meeting on Monday, would require producers to get a business license to work in the city, and would add layers of city authority to reject the airing of certain interactions. It would also require producers to get written consent from citizens being filmed, instead of verbal consent.

The policy memo, which was put together by Adam McDaniel, legislative aide for Council president Ben Stuckart, includes a lot of social media posts that highlight the way some viewers of the shows think about our community. The posts are tweets about “Live PD” – which, again, the city police department does not participate in.

But the responses from viewers don’t make a lot of distinctions between jurisdictions and departments – it’s all Spokane.

“Why,” asks one Twitter user, “does Spokane have a lot of dirt bags?”

Another asks: “… isn’t meth a wonderful thing?”

Here’s a few more:

“Today I learned that I will never ever move to Spokane.”

“Is everyone in Spokane County WA a drug addict? What a dump.”

“Damnit Spokane, you’re embarrassing.”

“Spokane is crazy-ass people man.”

Well, we are crazy ass people, man. Sure. But those who get their picture of Spokane from reality-TV shows are getting a distorted view of the craziness.

Our cops often look good on the shows, and that’s fine. But it’s important to ask: How much do we want to help in selling the world an entertainingly grim vision of Spokane as a miserable hellhole?

More from this author