Council Committee Rejects MPD Request To Be Featured on Crime Show
MPD sees it as public relations improvement. Alderman sees it as "trauma porn."
Milwaukee’s homicide detectives could become television stars.
The Milwaukee Police Department is requesting Common Council permission to enter into a contract for the department to be featured on A&E’s “The First 48” documentary-format television show.
“I used to watch The First 48 all the time, but it actually got to the point that it traumatized me,” said Alderman Khalif Rainey when the committee debated the measure on Thursday morning. “I just don’t think that this is the face we want to project to the rest of the world.”
Rainey said it would negatively impact the city’s recruitment effort for the Century City business park and efforts to address the perception that the city is the worst in the country for African Americans. The alderman later called it “trauma porn.”
The show’s name is a reference to its focus, the critical first 48 hours of a homicide investigation. Viewers follow detectives as they investigate the case, including interviews, interrogations and crime scene visits.
“There are a number of selling points for the program from the Milwaukee Police Department’s perspective,” said MPD chief of staff Nick DeSiato. He said the requirement that the victim’s family must agree to participate was key. He also said it would serve as an advertisement for unsolved cases, similar to the Crime Stoppers effort.
“I have personally watched many episodes. I am a fan of it,” said Inspector Paul Formolo, head of the MPD homicide unit and Criminal Investigations Bureau.
DeSiato said the department heard from past participants that it improved homicide clearance rates (the percent of cases resulting in an arrest or other identification of suspect) and public support.
“Do you have any evidence though?” asked Rainey.
“I don’t have any, other than our vetting,” said DeSiato of discussions with others. “I cannot tell you if their numbers jumped four percent or six percent.” A representative of the show also said there was no hard evidence.
The city’s clearance rate was 76% in 2019, it dropped by almost 20 percentage points in 2020 to below the national average amidst a record surge in homicides.
A positive television appearance for MPD would be a departure from what happened in 2017.
A BBC documentary “Dark States: Murder in Milwaukee” cast the department and city in a negative light and included graphic footage. Then-Police Chief Edward A. Flynn ultimately had to appear before the Common Council, claiming the department was lied to on the documentary’s intent.
“We have no interest in mischaracterizing the city or its residents,” said First 48 producer Erin McCarthy. She said other departments have told the show that it improved community relations. “We do not insert ourselves into the filming or material in any way.”
The city would be given advance access to episodes for review of accuracy, confidentially and security.
“I am shocked that you guys want this show, it can be so intrusive, you have cameras in your face,” said Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa.
“We are a fly on the wall type of filming, we would never want to interfere with someone doing their job,” said McCarthy. She said a report that New Orleans terminated its partnership with the program because of interference on a murder case was false. She said the show is no longer filming in the city, but is in regular communication regarding cases it did cover.
“I am having a hard time seeing benefits for our city in this,” said Mayes, who said it would force victim’s families to go through trauma again. Brostoff said there were other ways for MPD to achieve positive community relationships.
After an hour of debate the measure’s sponsor, Alderman Mark Borkowski, called for the decision to be held to the next committee meeting on April 1st.
But his fellow committee members voted down the motion to hold on a 1-4 vote. Joining Rainey were Marina Dimitrijevic, Chantia Lewis and Scott Spiker. Lewis, who earlier said she was indifferent, said Mayes’ testimony swayed her to vote against the proposal.
The committee then unanimously moved to place the resolution on file, a recommendation to the full Common Council to reject the proposed deal. The full council next meets on March 23rd.
Since premiering in 2004, A&E, a nationwide cable channel, has aired 21 seasons and 329 episodes of the show, including featuring Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Minneapolis and Phoenix, according to the show’s website.
The department or families would not be compensated for their appearances.