Beyond the bodycam: Gwinnett opens up in TV reality shows

Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office Master Deputy Jason Cotton (L) and Lt. Paul Corso are seen on the reality TV show “Live PD.” May 9, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office Master Deputy Jason Cotton (L) and Lt. Paul Corso are seen on the reality TV show “Live PD.” May 9, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Over the past year, Gwinnett County residents could easily have stumbled upon crime reality shows on TV featuring their local law enforcement agencies. The county sheriff’s office and police department have both partnered with crime documentary programs showing how detectives and deputies work.

While some cities in the U.S. have expressed concerns about the way the shows portray their communities and residents, Gwinnett law enforcement officials who have appeared on “Live PD” and “The First 48” say the exposure brings significant benefits, including improving public perception of the work they do.



In selling the idea to elected officials, both the sheriff and police chief told them the TV shows might provide recruitment tools. It’s not clear if recruitment for law enforcement jobs has improved, but through the shows, deputies and officers say the public can finally see what their jobs are really like.

“The big thing now is transparency,” said Lt. Paul Corso, a Gwinnett County sheriff’s deputy who has appeared on “Live PD.” “The citizens see us and what we do on a nightly basis, the diversity we have here, the things that we do and that we’re capable of doing.”

One county, two TV shows

Gwinnett is the first county in the metro area to work with both “Live PD” and “The First 48.” The sheriff’s office appeared on “Live PD” for a six-week stint in June and July of 2018 and again in a May episode this year. The Gwinnett County Police Department’s “First 48” episodes started airing in April. The shows, which depict two different aspects of policework, give the public a window on many aspects of the county’s law enforcement system.

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Lt. Paul Corso (L) and Master Deputy Jason Cotton talk about being on “Live PD” at the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office headquarters May 9, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Lt. Paul Corso (L) and Master Deputy Jason Cotton talk about being on “Live PD” at the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office headquarters May 9, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Lt. Paul Corso (L) and Master Deputy Jason Cotton talk about being on “Live PD” at the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office headquarters May 9, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

While true-crime documentary shows like “The First 48” have long been a TV staple, the newer “Live PD” was launched in the wake of a wave of viral cell phone videos of police, often capturing violence or questionable police behavior. “Live PD” has become a major hit; it was the most-viewed show on DVR, video-on-demand and other platforms in 2018, according to the entertainment industry publication Deadline.

The show broadcasts three hours of “almost live” footage twice a week, purporting to give viewers a fly-on-the-wall view of everyday policing. Footage is aired after a delay of 10 to 25 minutes in order to blur “sensitive material” and the faces of suspects and witnesses who do not want to be shown, as well as “address any legal concerns,” the contract with Gwinnett says.

In a 2017 memo advocating for the police department’s partnership with “The First 48,” Chief Butch Ayers said the show would help the department attract new recruits and increase the “morale and productivity” of the existing force. Ayers had previously declined offers from “Live PD” and “COPS,” but thought “The First 48” would highlight the department’s good record at solving homicides, Ayers said in an email to the AJC. Gwinnett County detectives solve or close between 88 and 90% of homicides, compared to a 64% national average.

The sheriff’s office also saw “Live PD” as a recruitment tool, said Corso, a 28-year law enforcement veteran. Neither agency is fully staffed. The police department is at 84% of its authorized number of officers, short by 142 people, and the sheriff’s office is at 91%, with 55 open deputy positions.

Sheriff Butch Conway was not available for interview for this story.

While there have been no major complaints about the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office’s participation in “Live PD,” officials in at least one other city where the show has operated have had concerns. The city of Spokane, Washington passed legislation to further regulate shows like “Live PD,” requiring them to get a local business license, insurance and written consent from every person depicted on the show when recorded inside the city. It stemmed from city residents complaining they had been shown on the series without giving consent, and others saying the show depicted Spokane at its worst, according to City Council President Ben Stuckart.

“Overall, it makes your community look awful,” Stuckart said. “I heard from so many citizens who were having the worst day of their life, didn’t sign a waiver and it went on TV anyway.”

Big Fish Entertainment, which produces “Live PD,” did not respond to a request for a comment.

The benefits of fame

“Live PD” follows multiple law enforcement agencies across the country for two- and three-hour blocks on weekend nights, showing incidents including drug arrests, traffic stops and assault calls. The show jumps from agencies in states from Arizona and Nevada to Georgia and Florida, and cameras follow those agencies for the full duration of each episode.

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Lt. Paul Corso (L) and Master Deputy Jason Cotton talk about their experience on the police reality TV show “Live PD” at Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office headquarters May 9, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Lt. Paul Corso (L) and Master Deputy Jason Cotton talk about their experience on the police reality TV show “Live PD” at Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office headquarters May 9, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Lt. Paul Corso (L) and Master Deputy Jason Cotton talk about their experience on the police reality TV show “Live PD” at Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office headquarters May 9, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The sheriff’s office agreed to work with “Live PD” in February 2018, and the police department’s contract with “The First 48” was approved in August 2017. Contracts with both agencies and their respective TV partners include clauses saying the shows’ crews will not interfere in law enforcement work. Those who have participated say that working with the cameras has had little impact on their normal duties.

“It was strange at first to get used to, but once we got used to it, it was not a big deal,” said Dana Laney, who was a detective in the homicide unit for a year and a half while “The First 48” filmed. She’s now an investigator for the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office. “We’re so focused when we get to [homicide] scenes on what needs to be done that we’re not paying attention to the fact we’re wearing a mic. The only time it was weird is when we were in the office and I would turn around to tell someone something and the camera was in my face.”

The biggest adjustment for Corso was having two to three extra people riding in his patrol car: a producer, camera operator and sound technician from “Live PD.”

“It’s always a little weird having another person in your car because you are used to being by yourself and doing, not whatever you want, but you’ll be yourself. You’ll talk to yourself, you’ll sing in the car,” Corso said. “It puts a little strain on you that you have people you have to protect, that you are responsible for.”

The professionalism of the crews made them easy to get used to, though, said Master Deupty Jason Cotton, another “Live PD” veteran from the sheriff’s office.

“They never got in the way. It made our job a lot easier having them here, which made it a lot more fun for us,” Cotton said. “We really got to enjoy the experience of having them out there.”

Contracts for both shows give the law enforcement agencies some say about what goes to air. Detectives who feature in the shows can review a “near final version” of “The First 48” episodes featuring the department to verify accuracy and have a five-day window to submit comments or corrections. That assuaged Laney’s worries that cases she worked on could be misrepresented.

“I really appreciated that because nothing would go out that would be made to look like something that actually didn’t happen,” Laney said.

While “Live PD” is done for now in Gwinnett and the police department’s “First 48” episodes have just begin to air, participating officers said the shows have brought them some personal fame. Laney has been recognized while out in Gwinnett, and she’s had more than 100 people try to follow her private Instagram account. Corso and other deputies featured on “Live PD” have had dinners paid for by those who’ve recognized them from the show.

The sheriff’s K9 unit, prominently featured on “Live PD,” has received treats for the police dogs and donations to go towards the purchase of canine bulletproof vests.

“It’s one of the hottest shows. That’s what cool for us. Being part of — is saying history too much?” Corso said with a laugh.


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