One of the longest-running shows in television history suffered its worst tragedy this week when an audio technician for the reality program “Cops” was accidentally shot and killed by police while trying to film a robbery in Omaha.
Officers thought the suspect was shooting at them. They opened fire, killing the suspect as well as Bryce Dion, 38, a seven-year veteran of the show. When police examined the suspect's weapon, they discovered it was a pistol that fired only pellets.
Since the show's start in 1989, danger has been a part of the appeal of “Cops,” to the point that the production company provides training and bulletproof vests to its employees, company officials said Wednesday. Dion was wearing one when he was killed Tuesday night.
The show — which ran on Fox until its cancellation in 2013 and was subsequently picked up by the Spike cable network — is known for its reggae theme song “Bad Boys” and for bringing viewers gritty footage of police officers patrolling the streets, chasing suspects and making occasionally heart-thumping arrests.
Dion's death is likely to raise new questions about crew safety on reality TV and could contribute to scrutiny over police use of force after a string of high-profile shootings across the U.S. resulted in the deaths of several unarmed people.
The incident began when Omaha police responded to a report of an armed robbery at a restaurant. Dion handled the sound equipment for the show's cameraman and had been working with Omaha officers on the show since June, police said.
Police said the suspect, Cortez Washington, 32, fired at officers with an airsoft pistol, which looks and sounds like a real handgun but does not fire lethal rounds. Washington was killed after the three responding officers returned fired, police said.
Dion was inside a vestibule at the restaurant when one of the police rounds struck him beneath his armpit in an area unprotected by his vest.
It's “as if we lost one of our own,” Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer told reporters during a televised news conference. “He was an incredible man.”
Dion was from the Boston area and had recently been promoted, said Morgan Langley and John Langley, who operate Langley Productions, the company behind “Cops,” and who flew to Omaha after news broke of the shooting.
John Langley said “Cops” was a true reality show, meaning “it happens as it happens.”
“That is our highlight and our lowlight,” he said of the filming format. “We train our guys and do provide them bulletproof vests.” Crew members are often former journalists, the pair said.
This was the first major on-set accident for “Cops,” a spokeswoman for the production company told the Los Angeles Times. A crew member was injured in a car accident in 2009 but was back at work quickly, the spokeswoman said.
She could not immediately answer whether the crew members were unionized or what sort of insurance the producers had for the show.
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents crew members who work on films and TV shows, has raised concerns about unsafe working conditions on reality shows, many of which are not covered by union contracts.
An official with IATSE said the union did not have a contract to cover crew members on “Cops” and declined to comment on the accident.
“We extend our condolences to the family, friends and co-workers,” said Vanessa Holtgrewe, an assistant director for the union's motion picture department.
The union was roiled this year when a camera assistant was killed by a freight train during production of the movie “Midnight Rider” in Georgia. The film's producers were recently charged with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass.
“It's another tragedy in our business,” said Steven Poster, president of the International Cinematographers Guild Local 600. “Safety is our first and foremost priority, especially if you're working around live ammunition.”
Reality TV’s low-budget action adventure shows attract the younger viewers coveted by advertisers. But a combination of tight budgets, lack of trained safety personnel and pressure to capture dramatic footage has caused serious and in some cases fatal incidents.
Many injuries go unreported because crew members sign non-disclosure agreements and fear being blacklisted if they file lawsuits. Record-keeping is further muddled by the fact that many of the shows are nonunion, and workers are often classified as independent contractors.
Kevin Boyle, a Los Angeles attorney representing the family of a consultant for a Discovery Channel show who was killed in a helicopter crash in Acton last year, said the Omaha incident “epitomizes part of the problem with these reality TV shows. Clearly there is a reason historically entertainment has been provided by actors and stuntmen in a safe setting. It’s absolutely ludicrous to have people following police around wearing bulletproof vests who aren’t part of the crime-fighting team.”
Safety can also be a concern for the city and county officials who allow the TV production to embed with law enforcement officers.
One publicly available internal memorandum from legal counsel for the County of Maui in Hawaii from 2003 shows that legal officials there were concerned about the kind of liability that hosting “Cops” might create for public officials.
A county attorney said the decision to allow the film crew was up to the police chief, but requested that the production company add Maui to the company’s insurance policy for $1 million and that the company sign a contract indemnifying Maui from liability in case anything dangerous happened during filming.
The attorney additionally suggested the kind of language that “Cops” officials agree to if they wanted to film potentially dangerous action on the street:
“(I/name of film company) recognize and acknowledge that there are certain inherent risks and dangers involved with law enforcement patrol units, which risks and dangers include, but are not limited to, falling, strains and overexertion, struck by or striking objects, and working with and around moving vehicles, firearms and other weapons,” the attorney suggested.
They then told police officials, “I am sure you can identify more of these risks than I can.”
Times staff writer Scott Collins contributed to this report.