As High-Profile Policing Stories Pile Up, Santa Rosa PD Still on Fence over “Cops” Contract

A spokesman at the Santa Rosa Police Department says the agency has not yet decided whether it will sign off on a contract with Langley Productions, the Santa Monica–based company that produces the controversial reality-show Cops.

“We are still evaluating the proposed contract,” says Captain Rainer J. Navarro via email. “As soon as we have an answer one way or the other, we will provide that information to the press.”

Langley Productions approached SCSO and SRPD back in January about signing on with the 31-year-old program, decreed by the criminal-justice news-site the Marshall Project that same month as the most polarizing reality show in America. The Sheriff’s Office signed on with Langley Productions, but SRPD did not, even as local news outlets blared with the news that SCSO and SRPD would be rolling with the TV crews, complete with the requisite and repeated cueing of the Bad Boys theme. 

Based on interviews with elected city officials, it was anticipated that SRPD Chief Hank Schreeder would have made a decision by the end of last week. City officials told the Bohemian two weeks ago that he was doing his “due diligence” and meeting with individual members of the City Council and taking the pulse of the community before he made a decision.

The Bohemian has a records request in with Sonoma County to ascertain the range and extent of SCSO’s communication with county officials or before Sheriff Rob Giordano signed the Cops contract in March.

In the meantime, days after the Cops films crews started following around swing-shift deputies with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, a man died after SCSO deputies detained him in a City of Sonoma mobile-home park, on March 28 at around 10 p.m.

The “fatal incident protocol” at SCSO requires the department to hand off the investigation of the man’s death to the SRPD, which issued a statement on March 29 detailing the incident and what would happen next. 

Forty-four year old Roderic Cameron was naked and smashing streetlights at the Sonoma Oaks Mobile Home Park. The City of Sonoma has a contract with SCSO to provide police manpower there.

The SRPD statement said that the suspect was Tasered and that “maximum restraints were used to detain Cameron,” who went into a medical crisis after being detained with a cord around his ankles, according to a report in the Press Democrat.

After being treated by deputies and paramedics on the scene, Cameron was rushed to Sonoma Valley Hospital and pronounced dead.

Neither the SCSO or SRPD, or the producers of Cops, responded to inquiries sent last week about whether the Cops crews were on hand during the fatal incident, which led to the administrative suspension of several SCSO deputies and the independent investigation by SRPD, which is ongoing. 

Whether the Cops film crews were there or not, the Sonoma incident has served to underscore a longstanding critique of Cops that it has historically depicted a biased view of policing that emphasizes the public-relations benefit for local police forces that sign on to the program—without addressing some of the systemic issues around police bias that plague departments across the country. The program has also been blasted for its uneven depiction of policing, to the extent that it focuses on high-action sequences over the mundane and routine public-safety work that officers engage in most of the time. 

In its three-decade history, Cops episodes have been filled with events similar to the scenario that unfolded in the City of Sonoma. A large and irrational screaming naked man who is bleeding and smashing lighting fixtures in a motor-home facility? That’s ratings gold for the program.

But scenes of detainees dying while in custody do not typically make it onto the program, if for no other reason that the suspects have to sign a consent form before the footage can be aired. And, the police forces who sign on with Cops are typically given veto power over any clips that the producers propose to air.

“I have concerns and thoughts about Cops being filmed with SCSO and SRPD in Sonoma County” says police-accountability activist Frank Saiz, who decreed the program “garbage” as he took a shot at city- and county-police spokesmen for hyping the program and its public-relations benefits when the Press Democrat reported on its arrival in the county a few weeks ago.

“This reality show is supposed to showcase law enforcement’s good, hard work that deputies do, per [SCSO spokesman] Sgt. [Spencer] Crum, while SRPD Lt. Rick Kohut says that it is ‘good publicity for the city.’ Is the morale that bad,” says Saiz, “that law enforcement needs to get juiced up and pretty for a reality show?

Kohut subsequently told the Bohemian that Schreeder was aware of  the historical critiques on the program, and said it was a possibility that he wouldn’t sign the contract, even after the Press Democrat reported that the SRPD would be participating, beginning in May.

Meanwhile, the local death of Cameron occurred against an explosive backdrop in Sacramento where Stephon Clark was recently shot eight times by police officers there, prompting demonstrations and calls for greater police accountability in the capital city.

Clark, 22, was killed after a helicopter and foot chase, and while he was in his grandmother’s backyard. Officers claimed he was coming toward them with a gun, a claim which is now being investigated by the California Department of Justice, since a subsequent autopsy and fact-check of the officers’ claims revealed that Clark was shot six times in the back while carrying only a cellphone.

Again, the first part of the story would make for great television: With a helicopter overhead, a foot chase that ends with a suspect in handcuffs and the cops saying things like, “Why’d you run, man?” is the Cops gold standard for gripping reality TV. The foot chase that ends with an unarmed 22-year-old black man getting shot six times in the back, in his grandmother’s backyard, typically does not make the editing-room cut in Cops-land.