TV's top police shows seem more concerned with drama than constitutional rights

January 08, 1995|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Seething because you're sure that vicious murderers are pampered and armed robbers are slipping through the loopholes of a loose criminal justice system?

If so, there is one sure place to gain solace.

In front of the television set.

There, on the best cop shows of the day, there is little patience for constitutional nuance or legal nicety. Television suspects already live in a get-tough-on-crime-environment where Miranda warnings are seldom heard and police do whatever they must to get their man.

And those familiar with what goes on in the police interrogation rooms of America say the shows are reflecting real life like never before.

On ABC's "NYPD Blue," where suspects are regularly threatened during questioning, and requests for lawyers are often deferred, it's "100 percent the way it would happen," said Bill Clark, the show's technical adviser, who spent 25 years on the New York City police force, 17 of them in the homicide unit.

"Once a fellow does invoke his right to counsel, we bring in a lawyer. But we are also careful to try and avoid him asking for one. That's reality. Once an attorney enters a case, for all practical purposes the investigation is over as far as getting information from that suspect."

As for Miranda warnings -- telling suspects they have the right to remain silent and what they say could be held against them -- Henry Bromell, the co-executive producer of NBC's "Homicide -- Life on the Street," said the police who work as consultants are clear about when they recite a suspect's rights.

"You can arrest someone and interrogate him -- and then Mirandize him when he is about to say something you want to use in evidence.

"If you have him 12 hours in a box, you can Mirandize him then, and he'll be so rattled it won't matter," Mr. Bromell explains.

Which sounds not unlike a scene from a "Homicide" episode earlier this season.

Detective Frank Pembleton, played by Andre Braugher, vigorously interrogated a murder suspect with a multiple personality disorder. Never was she given a Miranda warning; never was her right to have a lawyer present mentioned, not even when Detective Pembleton flat-out accused her of seven murders and tried to dictate a confession for her to write out word-by-word.

Elsewhere on the cop-show circuit, a city councilman was convicted in a sexual harassment case on NBC's "Law and Order" earlier this season after an aide fingered him during intense grilling by the police. Neither was given any Miranda warning, not even when the aide was told by one detective that he was under arrest for rape and for leaving the scene of an accident.

Dick Wolf, executive producer of "Law and Order," which employs three lawyers, including a former Manhattan assistant district attorney, on its writing staff, says he is confident his show mirrors reality.

With the councilman's aide, he said, "They were running a game on him. They knew he didn't do it. You can run a bluff. This is something they do all the time."

In fact, Mr. Clark, the "NYPD" adviser, said, "You can lie to suspects about anything. There is absolutely no problem with tricking them -- legally or morally."

Jerrold Kane, an inspector on the Philadelphia police force, says such trickery is "borderline," and depends on the specific case.

Mr. Clark, meanwhile, claimed "NYPD" is so accurate, "I'm hoping that the vast majority of criminals are not watching the show because they would get an insight into how we are manipulating people."

On the Christmas show last month, a repeat of last year's, one suspect asked for a lawyer and was told, "The season being what it is, it's going to take a while for us to get one here for you."

And the Dennis Franz character, Detective Andy Sipowicz, put a gun to a suspect's head and threatened if he didn't talk: "You got no family, you got no friends, and you got no rights. All you got left is your life, and I'll take it from you right here on the street."

Robert Peck, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said the law requires a Miranda warning once a suspect is actually in custody and not free to leave.

In response, Jerry Goldstein, a Texas attorney who is president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said, "It seems that in the old days, the brash and brazen law enforcement types were portrayed as oddities.

"More and more it has become the norm. You no longer see the tension between the concern of the police officer as enforcer of all laws -- including constitutional privacy and fairness. What you see is the more virulent aspects of the cowboy macho.

"The one fear is that perception becomes reality. Whether this is the chicken or the egg, what we may witness is that the public generally -- including the law enforcement community -- will see less concern for civil liberties. They sense that this is a reflection of reality."

The ACLU's Mr. Peck said the trend on television is robbing Americans of one of the best teachers they had about their rights. "Most people heard about Miranda because of police dramas," he said.

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