Baca latches onto small screen big time

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca already oversees the largest department of its kind in the United States. If he gets his way, it could soon be the most watched as well.

The sheriff has approved five proposed reality television programs about his nearly 9,000-deputy department, allowing video cameras inside the training academy, homicide unit, patrol cars and crime lab.

Two of the programs have been sold, with the first, “The Academy,” scheduled to premiere today at 5 and 9 p.m. on the Fox Reality network -- alongside such fare as “Extreme Dating,” “World’s Scariest Explosions” and “Sexy Cam.”


The real-life sheriff’s drama tracks a class of 111 recruits through 18 weeks of in-your-face instruction and gut-busting physical training that proves too tough for some.

Baca said the county agency would eventually be paid for its cooperation with Hollywood. But the real attraction is selling the Sheriff’s Department to the public and potential recruits, just as the Los Angeles Police Department did by providing a backdrop for TV’s “Dragnet” and “Adam 12” in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Baca plans to hire 1,300 new deputies this year and is looking for creative ways to attract applicants.

“I think it’s good marketing, because the viewers will have more respect for the profession,” he said. “That’s all I’m trying to do, let the public judge for themselves who the people are that wear the Los Angeles County sheriff’s badge.”

The department severed its relationship with the trend-setting reality program “Cops” many years ago because of logistical problems that come with allowing cameras in patrol cars. Baca saw “The Academy” as different, however. And his positive experience with its producers convinced him that the department should give other reality television ideas a look.

The new access has created something of a stampede on the Sheriff’s Department media office, which has a deputy assigned to handle inquiries from production companies. County lawyers have been busy banging out contracts ensuring that the county gets percentages of license fees and profits. The contract for “The Academy” guarantees the department 5% of license fees. One industry source said the department’s share would probably be about $150,000.

“The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is an area that’s been closed for years. They’ve opened that door,” said reality television producer Rasha Drachkovitch, who sold a pilot about Sheriff’s Department patrol deputies, “The Assignment,” to A&E.; “I think in a sense it’s almost a race. There are only so many opportunities for this. We feel a little pressure to get this out because of that.”

In addition to “The Academy” and “The Assignment,” the sheriff has authorized “L.A. Homicide,” which would document detectives investigating murder cases. Then there would be “The Real CSI,” a look into the scientific analysis of evidence, and “Sheriff’s Stories,” which would track cases from crime scene to arrest. The latter three shows are still in creative development and have not been sold.

The Los Angeles Police Department participates in “LA Forensics,” a Court TV reality program that depicts the LAPD’s Scientific Investigation Division. The department also occasionally lets officers appear in programs that feature police departments around the country. Fox Reality shows reruns of “LAPD: Life on the Beat,” which stopped shooting in the 1990s.

But an LAPD spokesman said the department rejects most television requests it receives.

“It is a resource issue,” said Mary Grady, public information director. “With all the requests I get from production companies, I could keep this department very busy doing reality television shows. But in reality we are in the business of policing and reducing crime and making the city safer. So I have to very carefully balance those requests with the priorities of the taxpayers.”

Sheriff’s Capt. Ray Peavy, head of the department’s homicide unit, plans to retire at the end of the month and begin working with his former colleagues on “L.A. Homicide.” The program would depict retired and current homicide detectives as they investigated unsolved murders. Court TV is among the networks interested in the program, Peavy said.

“It’s a win-win situation,” he said. “It’s going to provide entertainment for the guy at home. It’s going to allow the public to see how we work. And it’s going to allow us as investigators to get tips about cases.”

All of this videotaping concerns Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who fears that the television cameras will give defense attorneys more opportunities to question the sheriff’s investigative methods and motives.

After The Times contacted him about the programs, Cooley assigned prosecutors last week to examine potential legal pitfalls and to meet with sheriff’s officials to discuss concerns.

Under their contracts with the county, production companies are required to provide any video requested under subpoena. They also agree not to air footage until cases have been prosecuted.

But even video that does not make it onto television could become evidence that defense lawyers would be entitled to see. The district attorney suggested that the Sheriff’s Department retain video in a searchable database.

“They’ll have to figure out some way to retain all this and deliver it to the defense,” Cooley said. “This is an extra burden the Sheriff’s Department is going to have to take if they want these programs to exist. They may have to spend some of their profits preserving evidence.”

And any recording of detectives discussing theories about cases or potential suspects would be evidence that could be used by the defense, Cooley said. The district attorney said he expects some of the programs to provide ammunition for defense lawyers.

“Will anyone modify what they would do as a peace officer because they’re a character in a reality TV show? Defense lawyers are going to argue any angle they can,” Cooley said.

Baca said he has informed production companies that they will need to be prepared to provide video recordings for use as evidence in criminal prosecutions.

“There’s no question about it. Mr. Cooley is correct. Anything we gather is evidence. It has to be shared,” Baca said. “Our mission is to prosecute offenders who have committed crimes. Anything we can establish to make that point will be provided to the district attorney and the defense attorney as well.”

Television producer Scott Sternberg said he believes that Baca is the first sheriff in the nation to allow reality television cameras inside a training academy. That access makes “The Academy” compelling television, he said. All of the recruits and deputies in the program had to give their permission to be filmed.

“I didn’t know what to expect. When they lined them up, started yelling and screaming at them, I was stunned,” said Sternberg, whose production credits include “The Gong Show” and “The All-New Dating Game.”

In the first episode, a recruit appears to doze off in class, drawing this tirade from an instructor: “You are weak. You don’t even want to be here. It’s quite obvious.” Another recruit struggles to perform push-ups: “You gotta be kidding me. You didn’t prepare yourself for this academy, did you? How do you expect to protect those that live in L.A. County?”

Some of the strongest words were reserved for a recruit who wept when criticized by an instructor.

“This is not the job for you,” an instructor tells the recruit, who continues to cry. “If you cannot deal with it now in a scenario setting, how are you going to deal with it in real life?”

Baca said he negotiated final editing authority over the programs. He also extracted written guarantees that the programs “shall not derogatorily depict the county or the LASD.”

“Everything that is eventually aired we approve,” the sheriff said. “It’s under my control. And I’m not giving it up.... I’m not going to accept Hollywood nonsense.”

Sternberg said he was asked to edit out some jokes that department officials found inappropriate.

“The Assignment” was the idea of producer and actor Shane Conrad, a reserve Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy.

The 35-year-old Conrad said he hopes A&E; agrees to buy a full season of the program, which would present deputies as recurring characters working some of the department’s highest-crime neighborhoods.

The show will be different from “Cops,” because it will use the same roster of deputies, episode after episode.

In addition to showing the deputies working the streets, Conrad said, he wants to film them in their personal lives, surfing in Malibu or riding motorcycles in the Santa Clarita Valley.

He said the department will benefit from the exposure.

“If law enforcement does something great, you won’t hear about it. When an officer makes a mistake. it’s worldwide news,” Conrad said. “I don’t think that’s fair. This is one of the toughest jobs there is.”

He cited LAPD officers’ use of force against immigrant rights marchers and journalists at a MacArthur Park rally this month as “a perfect example. For every piece of footage you see of MacArthur Park, there are 20 things the officer did that day that benefited the community.”