Sheriff T.J. McDermott is excited about “Live PD” coming to Missoula County, saying there are lots of benefits to the live broadcast ride-a-long, like showcasing his deputies' skills and professionalism. He’s also a fan.
"This is like a feather in our cap to have Missoula County chosen as one of the nine agencies (featured on the show each week) so I look at it as just a great opportunity to show the great work that the men and women of the sheriff's office are doing," he said.
But there are concerns, even on McDermott's part, that come along with a live broadcast of law enforcement confronting criminal activity in any community, and several officials across the country have expressed those same concerns. At least three communities have seen taxpayers footing the bill for lawsuits stemming from the production and six have backed away from agreements with "Live PD." (See related story)
Two conversations have emerged around “Live PD” and they fall on two opposite sides of the same popular broadcast. On one side are fans of the show and its proponents, who say it gives a real look at the minute-to-minute uncertainty officers face on duty, as well as the job’s struggles and challenges.
On the other are officials, defense attorneys and others who’ve seen the show broadcast their communities to the world. Reports have bubbled up in the past year from those who are on the wrong end of "Live PD's" episodes alleging they never signed a consent waiver to appear on television. In some other jurisdictions, law enforcement has separated with the production team because Big Fish refused to give up its ability to destroy footage. Beyond that legal quandary, some simply don't want citizens shown on their very worst day as entertainment.
McDermott said he knows both sides make valid points.
"I'm hoping they'll show some of the great things we have going on in Missoula, more so of that than just the criminal element of our community," he told the Missoulian Tuesday, a day after the office announced Missoula County had been selected to come aboard the show beginning Sept. 20. "We'll see what that balance is. I hope it's a good balance and I'm hoping it showcases some of the good work our deputies are doing."
The term of the county's contract — a copy of which was provided to the Missoulian — with Big Fish Entertainment, which produces the show, commits the program to Missoula County for an "anticipated" eight to 12 weeks, although it allows either party to back out with a 45-day notice period. It also grants extraordinary access to the sheriff's office's investigations, operations, day-to-say station meetings and more. No money is exchanged as part of the contract.
McDermott said his first move after talks began with the production company was making sure due diligence was completed with county officials in other agencies. He took the agreement from Big Fish Entertainment and cleared it with the county's Risk and Benefits Office, which administers risk management, property and casualty insurance, and other personnel issues, and the County Attorney's Office.
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"We've had the conversation with the appropriate folks in the county to make sure it's OK and had those folks not agreed or felt like it was too big of a risk in our community, it's not something I'm going to push for," McDermott said. "Through our crew, through our county attorney's office, we were able to determine they have a pretty good understanding of our concerns."
Those concerns brought by county officials here included the broadcast of sensitive information, such as that involving children, sexual assault victims, suicides or fatalities. There were also discussions about confidential criminal justice information. McDermott said the show has its own legal team plugged into the "Live PD" team to handle those questions on the spot.
"Which is important, right? Because we're committed to individuals' right to privacy as well as private property and private property restrictions."
This also isn't the Missoula County Sheriff's Office first rodeo on television programming. In 2011, National Geographic TV featured the department in a program titled "Frontier Force: Montana." By accounts at that time and today, the sheriff's office got along well with the camera crews and considered the experience positive.
"The way they portrayed our office was done in a good way, so that kind of whetted our appetite with doing this type of thing," McDermott said.
He's also hoping this show will have the same framing as the Nat Geo experience, with an eye this time toward the search and rescue crews. "Live PD" will spend regular weekday shifts with deputies and other sheriff's teams to fill the lull during the live show with backup footage. Filming outside the city will likely find the production crews up the scenic Highway 12 toward Lolo Pass, and in the dense Swan Mountain Range near Seeley Lake.
But National Geographic hasn't quite caught the heat for "Frontier Force" like "Live PD" has seen, and the structure of the program is not an apples-to-apples comparison. For now, McDermott's taking the "Live PD" team at their word that they'll avoid sensitive scenes.
"I believe all involved have the intentions to bring forward the best show that puts us on the map," he said. "If that's not the case, then we'll end the agreement."