Fly-on-the-wall cop shows can distort our view of the force, says the ex-police chief
Every six months during my time in Sussex Police as chief superintendent for Brighton and Hove, I was approached by people keen to make TV documentaries about the city’s police. Nine times out of ten I’d turn them down.
The reason was simple: the vast majority of the fly-on-the-wall programmes I’ve seen about the police give a sensationalised account of the work they do, sometimes to a damaging degree.
For instance, anyone watching BBC1’s Motorway Cops or Channel 5’s Police Interceptors would think traffic cops spent all their time driving about in fast cars chasing villains. In fact, such officers have to follow strict guidelines during pursuits and safety is paramount.
Similarly, parts of the one fly-on-the-wall documentary I gave the go-ahead to, Channel 5’s Brighton Beach Patrol in 2010, turned out very differently from what I envisaged. The premise was to give an accurate portrait of the work police officers do on the seafront – but the end result was clichéd, with many scenes showing lots of officers running around, fighting drunks in the street.
Shows such as these can be bad for policing and harm relations between the police and the community. And although Brighton on a Saturday night can be a lively place, much of Brighton Beach Patrol did the city a disservice and I now wish I’d never given it the green light.
I understand that programme makers want to make exciting telly, but the way in which footage is often put together can give a distorted picture of police work. The danger is that people watching at home conclude that you’re liable to be jumped on by five or six cops if you misbehave – but in reality 95 per cent of being a police officer is about persuasion and empathy.
Thankfully, some documentaries do get it right. I was so pleased to see ITV’s Rookies – which shows what it’s like to be a new cop – recently return for a second series. The show dispels a lot of the myths and shows how officers sometimes struggle with the dilemmas of their profession – for instance, in dealing with vulnerable people or those struggling with addiction.
Two other series, both shown last year, got it right: ITV’s The Nick, about policing in Brighton, and Channel 4’s The Murder Detectives, about a major crime unit in Bristol. They brought out the professionalism that defines most officers.
So please, let’s see more balanced, believable docs and fewer portrayals of cops as robotic hardmen. That’s not too much to ask, is it?