Show's focus: `most wanted'

County's version of program leads to 603 apprehensions

Taped in sheriff's office

January 18, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The microphone pokes out from a cellophane tape dispenser, a make-do tabletop mike stand hidden behind a fake potted plant. A camera points at the round work table, now the anchor's desk. It was dragged from near the windows to be closer to a backdrop of three flags. The floor is a tangle of wires.

One hour a month, this corner of Anne Arundel County Sheriff George F. Johnson IV's office is the makeshift studio of Anne Arundel County's Most Wanted, a short cable television show that asks viewers to rat out people wanted on suspicion of crimes ranging from murder to driving on a suspended license.

The show, in its 10th year, has hit a milestone in the number of apprehended suspects that was celebrated yesterday with chocolate cake. As of yesterday's taping, 603 suspects featured on the show had been apprehended by authorities.

Quick math: At 12 alleged bad guys a month over a decade, the show and its related Web site can account for an eye-opening apprehension rate of about 40 percent.

The most-wanteds were once part of a half-hour government-station cable TV show, recently reduced to five-minute segments.

For the past year or so - at least once a week - the short segments have appeared on CNN's Headline News, one of Comcast Cable Communications' most-watched channels in a county where the cable giant has 100,000 subscribers. Each segment airs at least four times.

Not only are people staying tuned to a very low-budget production - it consists of two people talking and an unflattering mug shot of the wanted person joining them on the screen - but viewers keep turning people in, including five from the dozen profiled last month. The show, which Comcast officials say is unique to the region, offers no reward.

Experts say the numbers are not surprising.

People watch in hopes of breathing a sigh of relief, out of curiosity, out of a desire to know of someone else's troubles, with plans to turn in somebody they despise, in hopes of being a good citizen who improves the community, in search of safety and empowerment and so on.

The tapings follow a standard format. Yesterday, anchor George Mills, a retired WJZ-TV cameraman introduced Anne Arundel County, Annapolis and Maryland state police officers, then Sheriff Johnson. Each spent two minutes describing his most-wanted suspects.

And each time, Mills closed by saying, "I hope you can get ahold of those guys," or something close to that.

Maybe somebody knows the whereabouts of Kenneth Diggs, formerly of Olney, whom police have been seeking in a January 2000 homicide in Laurel. Maybe somebody knows where police can find Ivan Jerome Brown Jr., once of Severn, wanted on a charge of driving on a suspended license.

Sometimes, officers say, they're hunting for felony suspects. Sometimes it's people who are remiss in child support payments - officers say there's a certain amount of public vengeance against people who don't pay for their children's keep. And sometimes it's probation violators who thumb their nose at coming to court.

"Obviously, if they didn't have an audience it would not be on," said Lee Thornton, a broadcast journalism professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "There is a strong appeal, as ancient as Greek tragedies, that somebody out there is doing something about the bad guys out there."

And studies have shown that viewers tend to trust local media and local television more than national, she said.

The Carroll County Sheriff's Office provides a similar service on its government access channel, and it helps. Cpl. James R. Fisher said one announcement recently brought a tip that helped authorities find a Sykesville man wanted on robbery and other charges. The tip was that the man was in Honolulu - and he was arrested there.

Baltimore County tacks its wanteds onto the end of its half-hour police cablecast. Baltimore City is considering adding a similar show.

A Comcast spokeswoman said she wouldn't be surprised if other law enforcement offices in the region ask to do a similar spot in the viewer-laden slot after Headline News, given that the spot has increased Anne Arundel's arrests.

Yesterday, Mills recalled being stopped in a Glen Burnie supermarket by a fan who recognized him from the show. The man told Mills he never missed an episode because "I got a lot of friends on there."

Charles F. Wellford, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park who lives in Anne Arundel County, sometimes tunes in.

"If I'm flipping along and I see it, I stop and watch it," he said.

"It's not surprising that it could be working. Most crimes are cleared because somebody saw the crime or knows the offender. What they do is expose a wider potential of witnesses and people who knew about it to the case," he said.

Sheriff Johnson agreed.

"It's a tribute to our viewers," he said.

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