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Watching the detectives

Cops find something to love, hate in lineup of police TV programs


by: COURETSY OF SCOTT GREEN/NBC - Thats a real Portland police car behind Grimm actor David Giuntoli. When it comes time to knock down a door or make an arrest, Portland police are often used as consultants. Local cops say they sometimes watch the show just to see familiar faces and places, and for an escape from reality.Sure, in TV shows like "Law & Order" (1990-2010), art imitates life. But Portland police detective Sgt. Joe Santos says sometimes on the job, life imitates art.

A while back, a lieutenant was telling him about a case that immediately brought to mind a Morgan Freeman/Brad Pitt movie, Santos says.

“A brother killed his sister, and she was rotting in the bathroom,” Santos says. “And the brother was basically walking over her decaying body for two weeks to go to the bathroom. He was an obese guy and laying on the bed, and they went in to clear the house and he said, 'I'm sorry.'

“And I was thinking, 'Man, that really happened. That's exactly like the movie ‘Se7en’ (1995).”

Another case two weeks ago had Santos thinking about the popular Showtime series "Dexter." He was searching “the nastiest house in North Portland.” Garbage was strewn everywhere, he says. “I'm walking into the kitchen and stepping on pizza boxes full of rotting pizza that’s green and slimy and moldy. With every step I'm slipping around. I get to the basement and there's no power and we find the bad guy hiding in a closet pretending to be asleep.

“It reminds me of every TV show I’ve ever watched,” Santos says. “If it's ‘Dexter’ (2006-13) the crime scene is some beautiful modern house that's white with perfect blood splatter. Our crime scenes are garbage-filled, single-wide trailers that a hoarder lives in.”

Shootouts every day?

Everybody likes to look in the mirror at least a little bit, right? So if you're a cop, that means you probably watch some cop shows on TV, at least a little bit, right? If nothing else, cops know that what the rest of us see on TV and in movies influences what we think of them.

Surprisingly, none of the officers we put the question to admitted to watching reality TV shows such as “Cops” (1989-present). Portland police Sgt. Greg Stewart thinks he knows why.

“They become more like work,” Stewart says of true-to-life cop shows. “If I want realistic police stuff, I'll just work more.”

And Santos didn't need long to answer the question about cop shows and reality, since we approached him after he'd been up all night writing a search warrant on a downtown robbery and shooting. Fully in the moment, Santos recalled all the cop show officers who were able to “call in a warrant” and have it magically appear.

“I'd really like to have the Hollywood option now,” Santos said.

Santos says in the real world of Portland policing he will wait at least three months for results. And he calls most of the cop shows he watches “ridiculous.” But he'd like to have some of that ridiculousness at his disposal.

“Like ‘Dexter,’ ” Santos says. “He's got a laptop that scans blood and gives you a match in seconds. Another pet peeve is the magical database they have where you input random information and it spits out one name. Almost all of the actors will say, 'That's our guy.' In reality, our databases are terrible and very limited. Here in Portland, we're using a database from the ’80s.”

In addition to “Dexter,” Santos also tunes in to “Sons of Anarchy” (2008-current) occasionally. And he used to watch “The Shield” (2002-08). Notice a pattern? All feature corrupt police officers who often go outside the law to get the job done.

Santos says he just laughs at the corruption, and still finds the shows entertaining. “ ‘The Shield,’ the very first season, they actually kill another police officer and I was done with it,” Santos says. “I stopped watching. But everybody was talking about it, so I got sucked in.”

“Sons of Anarchy?” “Everybody in that show makes stupid decision after stupid decision after stupid decision, and come on, they live in a small town and they get in shootouts every single day?” Santos says.

by: COURTESY OF NBCUNIVERSAL - When Grimm needs extras in police uniforms it uses real Portland officers. Here, left to right, Det. Mike Perry, officer Steve Johns, actor Russell Hornsby, Det. Ken Reynolds and Det. Darren Posey prepare for action.

‘Let’s be careful out there’

Portland police crime analyst Wayne Alderman, who spent 15 years as a street cop in North Portland, recalls another instance of life imitating art. He says he worked with a Portland officer who was called Pacman by local gangsters. Pacman was Sean Penn's nickname in the cop movie “Colors” (1988), Dennis Hopper’s Los Angeles police drama that also starred Robert Duvall.

“I think it was because this officer reminded them of Sean Penn in the way he was all business,” Alderman says. “I don't think it bothered him. He knew where it was coming from.”

Bridget Sickon, who heads the Portland police Sex Offender Registration Detail, says TV shows got her thinking about becoming a police officer.

“I go back as far as Angie Dickinson as ‘Police Woman’ (1974-78),” Sickon says. “I remember it as a kid. It was not very real but I remember thinking, 'Wow, a gal could be a cop.' ”

A cop who smoked on the show, no less. Sickon remembers that, too.

Sickon says she laughed hysterically when FBI agent Sandra Bullock in full dress makeover tripped in “Miss Congeniality” (2000). It reminds her of a real life incident, possibly the only time she's seen an officer doing police work in high heels.

Sickon was arresting a cab driver in Washington, D.C., when the driver began “getting physical.” She called for backup and the first responder was an officer friend who had been attending a formal event in the area. “She was around the corner, the first one on the scene to help me, and I couldn’t stop laughing as she comes running around the corner. She didn't fall.”

Sickon, a police officer for 25 years, has taken to watching “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (1999-current), which features New York City detectives working sex crimes — not surprising since Sickon works with sex offenders. She says there's “a lot of reality to it, but there’s a lot of BS, too.”

The BS? “These guys keep getting into trouble with their boss,” Sickon says. “With the (number of) times they get in trouble with current day policing they'd be fired.”

One of the stars of "SVU" is Mariska Hargitay, who portrays detective Olivia Benson. Mostly, Sickon finds "SVU" does a decent job of depicting investigative work. But Hargitay's portrayal of Benson gives her pause. “It's still an amalgam of what society wants a female cop to be,” she says. “They still want us to be sweet and have all those traditional female characteristics.”

Sickon recalls her middle-school affinity for “Charlie's Angels” (1976-81). “I loved the show, even though I knew it was mostly BS when I was watching it,” she says. “Loved watching the camaraderie of the gals. That’s what I remember most. Wondering if lady cops really had that kind of camaraderie, hoping at that point in my life that it was true, as I was starting to seriously consider and desire wanting to be a cop.”

Happily, Sickon says she's found some of that camaraderie in the three-woman sex offender reregistration detail she heads.

Sickon echoes a number of the more senior officers in nominating “Hill Street Blues” (1981-87) as one of her all-time favorites, and one of the most realistic cop shows. And, like many senior officers, she can recite the show's two signature lines. The show opened each week with roll call, at the end of which the sergeant would send his officers out on the street with a last admonition.

In the early years of “Hill Street Blues,” Sgt. Stan Jablonski would finish roll call with, “Let's do it to them before they do it to us.” Later, Sgt. Phil Esterhaus changed the line to the less politically incorrect, “Let's be careful out there.”

by: COURTESY OF SCOTT GREEN/IFC - These Portland cops are very fashionable. Of course, it's Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein from IFC's 'Portlandlia' episode in which Fred and Carrie try to redesign the Portland Police Bureau uniforms. Some Portland police officers, and their patrol cars, have been extras on the comedy.

Not so funny in court

Brian Schmautz, a longtime Portland police officer now a senior investigator with the Clackamas County District Attorney's office, remembers the lines and says “Hill Street Blues,” was his favorite cop show. The closest real-life imitation Schmautz can come up with was a Portland sergeant who would end roll call each morning with his own salty admonishment: “If you meet a girl in a tube top and you can’t help yourself, call me, and I’ll give you the last half (of shift) off.”

That was the sergeant’s way of telling officers to stay out of trouble, Schmautz says. But mostly Schmautz gets frustrated with cop shows, and thinks they often make life harder for cops who can't do what cops on TV shows do. So he rarely watches anymore.

“All those shows have ruined juries for what it takes to get evidence processed,” he says. “You get juries that think, 'Why didn’t they take DNA on that car prowl?' ”

DNA and other forensic tests are too expensive to order on most cases, Schmautz says.

What Schmautz likes about cop shows is their portrayal of the close relationships formed by officers working together. A number of officers interviewed concurred. And yes, Schmautz says, the joking around can get officers in a little bit of trouble.

Schmautz recalls taking apart a meth lab with partners, all dressed in Hazmat suits. One of the team discovered Halloween costumes, so they put on masks and women's wigs as they carried the chemicals out of the shed. But the operation was being recorded, and the video of the team in their costumes made it to the defense attorney, who suggested the officers had behaved unprofessionally.

“That picture ended up being introduced in federal court,” Schmautz recalls. “That's the kind of stuff you wish that somebody could capture in these shows."

The least accurate and most unwatchable show, according to longtime officer and now acting Capt. Robert King, was a one-year wonder, police drama/musical called “Cop Rock” (1990).

“In the course of roll call they would break out into song,” King remembers. “I had this violent reaction to it.”

Lt. Matt Wagenknecht says “Adam-12” (1968-75) helped inspire him to become a police officer. He looks for shows with intricate plot lines. “If it can fool me, then I'm interested,” Wagenknecht says. “Something that's predictable, I don't really care for it.” The movie “L.A. Confidential” (1997) was one that kept him guessing.

And yet, Wagenknecht lists the Will Farrell comedy “The Other Guys” (2010) among his favorites. What he liked was a scene where top cops Samuel Jackson and The Rock come back to the precinct house after solving a case. “Everyone's praising them,” Wagenknecht says, “And (Jackson says), 'Who wants to write these reports?' And Farrell says, 'I'll do it.' ”

That's every detective's dream, according to Wagenknecht: “Do all the fun stuff and not have to do all the hard stuff.”

King says “NYPD Blue” (1993-2005) was “for me, the single best cop show of all time.” He calls the show “accurate and touching.” Especially accurate, King says, was the way the show depicted interviews with gang members suspected of crimes, and how police would get them to turn on one another.

“We'd say, 'The first one on the bus gets the best seat,' ” King recalls of his days as a gang unit detective.

“I'd go to work, I'd do interviews, I'd extract confessions, get people to roll on each other, and I'd turn on TV and there's be an episode where they'd do the exact same thing,” King says.

Stewart has had to deal with a different kind of crossover between his work and reality. His 12-year-old daughter has become a fan of “Numb3rs” (2005-10), featuring an unusually gifted crime analyst, which happens to be Stewart's job. Except Charlie, the mathematician/analyst on the show, has some TV-style advantages. The databases he uses are up to date and always accessible.

“She gets it that they do the same thing,” Stewart says. “She likes to tease me that he's a lot better than me, that if I was as good at my job as he is, we could solve a lot more crime in Portland.”

The truth? “If I had months to work on a project I could do one of the things he does,” Stewart says.