North Carolina sheriff promises transparency. Is ‘On Patrol: Live’ the way to get it?

By Rachel Baldauf 

Robeson County sheriff’s deputy Donel McCallum approaches the passenger side door of a car he’s pulled over. It’s nighttime, and the blue and white flashing lights from his patrol vehicle illuminate the scene.

“Hey look boss. Just turn that way and it won’t be in your damn face, all right?” McCallum tells the man in the passenger seat before ordering him to get out of the car. When the man tries to make a run for it, McCallum and another deputy quickly wrestle him to the ground.

“We didn’t cause a problem – he did,” McCallum says as he handcuffs the suspect. “He wanted this problem.”

The action-packed scene played out on a recent episode of “On Patrol: Live,” a biweekly reality television series that shows real-time footage of law enforcement officers. The Robeson County Sheriff’s Office joined the show’s lineup in late May, purportedly to offer the public a glimpse into the lives of deputies in a county with the highest violent crime rate in North Carolina.

But “On Patrol: Live” and reality TV shows like it have a long and controversial history in the United States, with critics saying they give viewers a warped perception of what policing in America really looks like.

“My biggest concern is the way that these shows distort reality,” said Emma Rackstraw, an economist who authored a study in 2023 about the effects of so-called “copaganda” shows. “Literally, the nature of policing is fundamentally changing in the places where cameras arrived.” 

Rackstraw completed the study, which has not been peer reviewed or published in an academic journal, while pursuing a doctoral degree from Harvard University. 

As protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers rocked the nation in 2020, reality cop shows faced fierce criticism. “Live PD,” which premiered on A&E in 2016, was canceled in June 2020 amid reports that the show destroyed footage of a Texas man who died during a traffic stop after being tased multiple times by deputies. “Cops” — which premiered in 1989 and is often seen as the originator of the genre — was canceled the same month.

But the shows have made a comeback. “Cops” was revived by Fox Nation in 2022, and “On Patrol: Live”, a quasi-revival of “Live PD”, began airing in 2022 on Reelz.

“There was just no chance they were really going away,” Rackstraw said. “They’re just far too popular. They’re incredibly profitable. They’re very cheap to make. Police love them, channels love them, producers love them.”

High crime rate

The Robeson County Sheriff’s Office was approached about joining the show over a year and a half ago, Chief Deputy Damien McLean said in a statement. The deal was finalized in March

While law enforcement agencies are not paid for their participation in the show, they may be paid a fee for the rights to air the agency’s name and logo, Reelz said on its website.

Robeson County sheriff’s deputy Donel McCallum stops a vehicle during an episode of “On Patrol: Live” that aired on June 22, 2024. Screenshot from Reelz

Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Wilkins did not respond to multiple phone calls from the Border Belt Independent. In a statement posted on Facebook in late May, Wilkins said he was “excited” about taking part in the show. 

“Utilizing this format to showcase the work of our Deputies will help people understand what law enforcement officers face on a daily basis,” Wilkins said.

Robeson has long been plagued by poverty, drugs and crime. Over 26% of the county’s 117,000 residents live in poverty, more than double the statewide figure. In 2022, the county had one of the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in the state. 

So far this year, the county has recorded at least 22 homicides. Wake County, which has a population more than eight times the size of Robeson’s, had 56 homicides last year.

Deputies in Robeson County started using body-worn cameras in 2021 in a move that the sheriff’s office said would “provide accountability.” Some residents had pushed for the cameras, including the family of Matthew Oxendine, who was shot and killed earlier that year by members of the agency’s SWAT team. 

Body-worn camera footage can be difficult for the public in North Carolina to access, though. Law enforcement must petition a judge in order to release recordings.

While some have argued that shows like “On Patrol: Live” increase transparency, Rackstraw disagrees.

“It’s fundamentally such a different concept than the body-worn camera,” she said. “They’re watching for different reasons, looking for different things, hoping the police officer does different things.”

‘Becoming more aggressive’

Rackstraw said “On Patrol: Live” and shows like it often give viewers an inaccurate view of law enforcement. Rackstraw found that viewers of such shows tend to overestimate the number of reported crimes that law enforcement officers solve. Fewer than half of all violent crimes in the United States were resolved by law enforcement in 2019, FBI data shows.

“You walk away with the sense that police are always making arrests. They’re constantly solving crimes,” Rackstraw said. “When in reality, most crimes go unsolved in the U.S. and arrests are actually a very, very rare outcome for a typical officer on a typical day of policing.”

Law enforcement officers also tend to act differently while cameras are rolling, Rackstraw said. Departments that filmed with reality television shows saw a 20% increase in arrests for low-level, victimless crimes, her study found.

“Police are becoming more aggressive, arresting and enforcing things that they weren’t necessarily before and in ways that don’t seem to be beneficial to public safety and can actually be harmful,” she said.

Trust is also an issue. Confidence in law enforcement last year was the lowest it had ever been, according to a poll by The Washington Post and ABC News. Confidence tends to rise among people who watch reality cop shows featuring law enforcement agencies where they don’t live, Rackstraw’s study found. But confidence drops for viewers watching agencies that serve close to home. 

“Police departments and sheriff’s offices are gaining lots of fans and followers,” Rackstraw said. “But generally those are not coming from their communities.”

Departments have the right to review and request editing of footage that “could potentially endanger citizens and/or the safety & security of police officers, and/or compromise departmental operations,” Reelz said on its website. However, a  2020 investigation by the Marshall Project found that law enforcement successfully asked “Live PD” to destroy footage for other reasons.

“It’s completely in the interest of the producers and the creators to keep the departments happy,” Rackstraw said.

Robeson County sheriff’s deputies wrestle a suspect to the ground during an episode of “On Patrol: Live” that aired on June 22, 2024. Screenshot from Reelz