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Public access: reaching the community through cable TV.

Community policing, as its name implies, involves establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships between the police and the community. And as police administrators around the country have discovered, communication is the key to any enduring and substantial relationship of this type. Progressive departments use diverse methods, from neighborhood workshops to telephone surveys to community newsletters, to communicate with citizens. These types of measures have met with varying degrees of success.

However, in their search for innovative communicative outlets, many departments have ignored an existing, and in most cases, readily available resource that could reach out to the community with minimal effort from line officers. This resource is available free-of-charge to potential users and generally even comes with an in-house technical support staff that will help clients get the most out of their investment of time and effort. It also has the potential to reach nearly every man, woman, and child in a municipality and offers a very flexible array of formats to suit the needs of its client users.

What could possibly offer so much to law enforcement? This potentially powerful, but often untapped, resource is the public access programming component of the cable television industry.


Since its first practical application some 25 years ago, cable television has revolutionized America's television viewing patterns. Today, it offers the ultimate in mass communication to a busy, information hungry society. Through its public access programming, cable television also offers law enforcement agencies a viable and highly effective means to further their community policing efforts on a truly community-wide basis.

The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Police Department has enjoyed a 6-year relationship with the city's cable companies. During this time, the police department worked with these cable operators to develop and produce a variety of programs that promote the department's community policing efforts while providing useful police- and crime-related information to viewers. The police department has worked with the cable companies to produce programs in three different formats - a live call-in show, a talk show, and a fugitive-style show. Its experiences serve as a model for departments large and small that are considering adding public access programming to their community policing initiatives.


Cable television is area-specific in most regions of the country. That is, the cable market is divided into geographical sections. Cable franchises bid to provide service to a particular area and then enter into a contract with the municipality to deliver that service. Depending on a variety of factors, including the size of the local television market, a city or county may have one or more franchises operating within its boundaries.

Federal Communication Commission (FCC) guidelines mandate cable franchises to dedicate a prescribed number of hours to free, local public affairs programming.(1) Local cable operators, therefore, need information-based telecasts to fill their programming slots on public access channels.

Police departments can supply exactly the kind of public affairs programming that cable companies need. In turn, cable companies can help police departments disseminate their messages to a broad and diverse segment of the community.

To take advantage of the opportunities cable offers, police departments generally must initiate negotiations with the local cable operator. Before doing so, however, police administrators and executive-level officers should develop a firm proposal to take to the cable company. Preplanning will strengthen the police department's position when it presents the idea to the cable company. It also enables the department to take an advanced role in defining any future programming.


Despite the obvious potential benefits of crime prevention- and police-related programming to a community, police departments still might find that they have to sell their programming ideas to cable companies. This is especially true in mature markets where cable franchises have been operating for 15 or more years. In such areas, cable operators may have to displace established public access programs to make room for new programming. Such scenarios underscore the importance of developing a firm and comprehensive proposal to take to the cable company.

When negotiating with local cable companies, police administrators should remember what motivates cable executives. A cable company obviously is interested in any programming that could increase its subscriber base. However, through its public access efforts, the company's primary motivation is to provide programming that will enhance its relationship with the community it serves. Therefore, police negotiators should stress that as the most visible arm of municipal government, the police department can work with the cable company to provide a wealth of public service programming.(2)

Police executives should come to the negotiation table prepared with general programming ideas. Examples could include providing viewers with crime prevention suggestions, child safety tips, and updates on new community crime patterns. The police department also could use cable access to publicize other information of interest to the community, such as budgetary news, hiring information, and the introduction of new police services.

Given the vast potential for public service programming from a public safety perspective, most cable companies will welcome a well-thought-out programming proposal from the police department. Once an agreement in principle is struck, the police department and the cable company can then discuss format options for the programming.


As stated, the Philadelphia Police Department has produced programs in three different formats.(3) Each type of program places different demands on the police department, as well as the cable company's production staff, and delivers information to viewers in a decidedly different way.

The Live Call-in Show

From a production standpoint, the live call-in show is the easiest type of show to put on the air. Because these shows are broadcast live, they require no post-production work. The immediacy of live broadcast also adds a sense of excitement and spontaneity that invariably comes through to viewers.

However, "live" does not mean unrehearsed or unprepared. Live call-in shows require considerable planning to ensure that they run smoothly and set a professional tone. Police administrators should work with the production staff to determine an appropriate running time for the program before the broadcast begins. Generally, shows of this type should run 1 hour, depending on factors such as the size of the cable market. Administrators also must address other important issues, such as identifying a proper host for the program, ensuring that sufficient telephone lines are in place, and arranging for the screening of phone calls to the program.


In large part, the success of a live call-in show will depend on identifying a camera-savvy host to moderate the program. The host ensures that the program runs smoothly by serving as an intermediary between callers who ask the questions and the department representative, preferably the chief, who answers them. In larger departments, administrators should look for a host among the agency's community relations staff or the public information office because officers from these units possess media experience and some relative comfort in front of the camera. Administrators in smaller departments might ask for volunteers within the ranks to audition for the role.

Once a host is chosen, that individual must prepare for performing this demanding role prior to going before the camera. To do so, the host should watch other live programming, such as home shopping channels or nationally syndicated call-in shows, to learn how other professionals handle call-ins and on-camera guests.


To allow for maximum viewer participation, sufficient telephone lines should be available to meet the demand. In most cases, the cable company has enough telephone lines to handle the calls. If not, police administrators can approach the local telephone company about the possibility of having lines donated on a temporary basis for the telecasts.

Screening the Calls

During a telecast, police personnel should screen incoming calls before they are forwarded to the on-air host. In small- to medium-sized police departments, patrol officers, perhaps on a volunteer or rotational basis, can perform this function. In larger departments, community relations officers assigned to the areas where the program will air are best suited for this role.

The officers' primary objective in screening the calls is to filter out troublesome callers. This is not to say that officers should screen out callers who question or even oppose specific departmental practices, but a live call-in show should not become a forum for malcontented citizens to bash the police department. Officers also can positively influence the types of questions and caliber of callers by notifying community leaders in advance of the show time, format, and telephone number.

Specialized Programming

For large jurisdictions served by multiple cable providers, live programming raises additional issues. Three cable franchises serve the greater Philadelphia area. Under current contract arrangements, one company provides studio time and technical support for police department programming, and all three air the programs after taping is completed. This provides city-wide penetration for the department's taped telecasts.

With live, call-in programming, however, only the area of the city served by the originating cable company can receive the broadcast. In Philadelphia, the police department uses the area-specific quality of cable television to its advantage. The department is able to match its live telecasts to the needs of the viewing community. For example, the department may use live call-in programming to address crime patterns in certain neighborhoods or to show how residents in particular areas of the city can access new police services.

Live call-in programs enable police departments to tailor programming for consumers of police services. The programming is immediate and results-oriented and provides a viable way for the police and citizens to engage in instant problem solving.

Studio Audience

Live call-in shows benefit from having an audience in the studio during the broadcast. The size of the audience will depend on the capacity of the studio. However, a strong contingent of ranking officers dressed in the uniform of the day will add to the credibility of the show.

The uniformed officers offer more than just an aesthetic component to the program. They assist the chief in responding to callers' questions. Responses coming from the chief and the ranking officers will send viewers the strong message that they have the full attention of their police department.

Floor Director

Normally, the cable company will appoint a member of its technical support staff to act as floor director for the live call-in show. If the cable company cannot provide a floor director, then the police department should select an officer to perform the role, preferably one who has worked in public affairs.

The floor director follows orders transmitted from the director through an ear piece and gives instruction to the show's host. The floor director also cues the host regarding the identity and location of callers and which telephone line a particular caller is on. For example, a typical cue would be, "Mary from Smithtown on line one."

In addition, the floor director cues the host for any breaks and informs the host when live broadcasting resumes. The floor director also may pass the microphone to officers in the audience when they respond to callers' questions.

The Talk Show

Although viewers find a lot to criticize about the current state of television talk shows, the Philadelphia Police Department found that the talk show format can lend itself to more than just outlandish revelations and sensationalized soul baring. The department's talk show featured police officials discussing timely topics that ranged from community policing to new programs designed to combat domestic violence to seasonal issues, such as holiday crime prevention techniques.

The talk show format is almost infinitely adaptable, which no doubt accounts for its widespread growth. The Philadelphia Police Department's half-hour talk show included a 6- to 8-minute pre-produced segment.


The title of a police-oriented talk show should be simple and set a professional tone, as well. Accordingly, it should instantly identify the program as a forum for the serious discussion of public safety-related matters. Titles such as "Police Perspective" or "Cop Talk" work well.


Like the host of a live call-in show, the moderator of a talk show must have the ability to project a polished, engaging, and professional image on camera. Unlike the host of a call-in show, however, the talk show host cannot rely on a stream of callers with new questions to move the show forward.

The primary role of the talk show host is to ask guests questions and lead the conversation in the directions that interest viewers. Therefore, the host must be fully familiar with the subject and prepare extensive notes before each taping to keep the discussion meaningful and lively.


The talk show format provides a police department the opportunity to introduce a wide variety of department personnel to the community. On any given broadcast, the guest might be an officer who walks a neighborhood beat, the supervisor of a new elder abuse unit, or a reserve officer who volunteers at a district ministation.

Departments also should consider inviting community leaders from outside the agency to be guests on the talk show. The department can schedule certain guests depending on the time of year (e.g., the head of the bicycle patrol unit at the beginning of spring, a theft prevention officer or the security chief of a local retail mall during the holiday shopping season) or schedule guests who correspond to highlights in the department's magazine or community newsletter.

Pre-produced Segment

Although pre-produced segments are not essential to a successful talk show, they can help expand on the topic or highlight the good work of patrol officers. For example, a pre-produced segment may include the profile of an officer who saved a life using CPR or a community activist who provides safe houses for children along their route to school.

A pre-produced segment should be between 5 and 10 minutes in length. The cable company might assign available staff members to produce the segment in conjunction with police personnel. Larger departments might choose to have their own audiovisual units prepare the pre-produced segments so that the department has more control over the content.

The Fugitive Show

The goal of a fugitive show is to communicate information regarding criminal fugitives to as large an audience as possible and thereby increase the chances of apprehending the subjects. The broadcasts serve two purposes. First, they alert viewers of the fugitives' possible presence in the community; second, they solicit information from viewers on the fugitives' whereabouts.

Given the potential dangers of eliciting such assistance from community members, any type of fugitive program should include warnings to the audience not to attempt to make contact with the subjects featured. During each telecast of the Philadelphia Police Department's fugitive show, viewers were cautioned at least twice with the following statement:

The fugitives you are about to see are armed and dangerous. Do not approach them. Do not take the law into your own hands. Instead, call the police using the numbers listed on your screen.


The title of a fugitive show should be catchy and easily identifiable as a police program. Titles that evoke familiar phrases, such as Springfield's Most Wanted, work well. Alliteration, as in Philadelphia's Fugitive File, also makes for an effective title.


To avoid information overload, departments should limit the number of subjects featured on each episode of a fugitive show. A half-hour telecast should feature no more than 12 fugitives.

In general, each episode should highlight fugitives charged with a variety of offenses, such as theft, aggravated assault, and fraud. However, large police departments may choose to feature periodic special programs focusing on fugitives sought by a specific investigative unit, such as vice, narcotics, or homicide.

Department personnel should secure a clear, recent photograph of each subject. They should use copies of the investigative report(s) and the warrant to create interesting narratives about the fugitives.

The narratives and the script for the telecast, which includes the words of the host and camera directions, should be loaded onto a computer disk. The disk and photographs should be delivered to the cable company studio at least 1 week prior to the scheduled taping date. This provides the production staff the lead time necessary to place the photographs on video and load the script onto the TelePrompTer.

The night before taping, officers should conduct a final National Crime Information Center check and local records check to ensure that the warrants remain outstanding. Any subjects who have been apprehended should be deleted from the final taping.


The role of host for a fugitive show should rotate among different "camera-friendly" personnel in the department. Because the individual will read the narratives while the subjects' photographs appear on the screen, the host should possess a clear and pleasant speaking voice.


Police administrators should understand that cable operators probably will not be able to provide the department with quantified ratings for its programming. Therefore, departments that wish to measure the impact of their cable programming must devise their own methods, perhaps by adapting existing satisfaction surveys or questionnaires, to gauge viewership.

The Philadelphia Police Department has realized considerable direct benefit from its cable programming. Numerous arrests have been made as a result of the fugitive show broadcasts, and the department's other programming has generated positive responses from the community and cable providers alike. The cable companies receive numerous letters and calls from viewers concerning the programming.


Some cable companies might be reluctant to enter into agreements with law enforcement agencies because public safety-oriented programming could touch upon various legal issues. To protect the cable companies, the Philadelphia Police Department signs contracts with each company assuming full responsibility for the content of the department's programming. A police department's legal advisor should work with the cable company's legal counsel to write a contract that protects all parties involved.


Public access television offers a practical and effective means for law enforcement agencies to increase interaction with the community. Despite the widespread impact of such programming, however, production agreements with cable companies do not necessarily require an exorbitant commitment of resources on the part of police departments.

When the Philadelphia Police Department produced three monthly shows, six public affairs officers contributed to the effort on an alternating basis, with the assistance of personnel from the audiovisual and other units. The officers performed these functions in addition to their routine duty assignments.

Administrators should not underestimate the level of commitment necessary to produce successful programming. Although cable companies provide the technical support, research, writing, and other pre-production skills are necessary from the police side. For this reason, departments should consider cultivating and training competent personnel before venturing into this arena.


No one disputes the integral role that television plays in modem American culture. Business enterprises and advertisers have long recognized its unparalleled ability to communicate a message to potential customers.

In an ever-more visually oriented society, law enforcement agencies should not overlook television as a way to communicate with their customer base. Cable access programming offers an unparalleled outlet for many law enforcement agencies to inform the public and enhance their presence in the community.


1 In Turner Communications System, Inc., et al. v. Federal Communication Commission, et al., decided on March 31, 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld existing FCC regulations requiring cable companies to provide free public-access programming. See 117 S.Ct. 1174.

2 Dave Schwartz, Program Manager for Greater Media Cable of Philadelphia provided technical guidance and advice for this article.

3 Administrators interested in additional information about cable programming can contact the author at the Philadelphia Police Academy, 8501 State Road, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19136.

Sergeant Young serves with the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Police Department.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Young, Theresa
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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