Cops on TV, Part One: Police Women of Broward County and Lamberti's Legacy

Sheriff Al Lamberti has made BSO arguably the most TV-friendly law enforcement office in the nation. Not only did Cops come back this year, but Police Women of Broward County and Unleashed: K9 Broward County have continued to air our dirty laundry to the world.Today and tomorrow, we'll be looking at the Broward Sheriff's Office embrace of reality TV -- and what it means, good and bad, for the department's accountability.

One day in the late 1980s, Ron Cacciatore sat in his dining room with John Langley and Malcolm Barbour, a couple of TV producers from California. They were sealing the deal for a radical new idea in television: a show that would follow actual police officers on the job as they made arrests.

Cacciatore was the right-hand man of Nick Navarro, the Broward County Sheriff. "Nick liked the idea," recalls Cacciatore. Cops filmed its first season with Navarro's force in Broward County, establishing a formula for bringing tank-topped "bad boys" to justice at the height of the crack epidemic. It kicked off the whole genre of reality TV, and broke down barriers between police and public life.

You'd think Cacciatore, who's now retired, would be glad to see the current department carry on the tradition. In fact, he's anything but.

"Police Women of Broward County has tainted all of the police shows," he says, calling it "one of the most disgraceful things I've ever seen.

He's referring to a show on TLC that followed a group of female deputies through two seasons of police chases and drug busts, walking a delicate line between empowering and objectifying the strong-but-sexy deputies. Just as Navarro was the first sheriff to sign with Cops, Lamberti helped launch the Police Women franchise, which has expanded to other cities.

At times, it has also put the sheriff's department in a compromising position.

For example, in February 2011, a producer of the show sent text messages to the girlfriend of a suspect, offering to pay her boyfriend's bail if she would sign a release to show her face on television. He also took a minute to try flirting with her. Release forms are key to the success of police shows, and suspects often sign the forms because they want to be on camera. When Lamberti was asked about these payments, he said he confronted the producers and told them to stop the practice.

Cacciatore also objects to the show's early practice of filming female deputies -- especially single mom Andrea Penoyer -- in bikinis on the beach, sexing things up for the camera. "You didn't see us on COPS marching around in Speedos," he offers.

It's not surprising that Cacciatore has harsh words for Lamberti: he's a supporter of his challenger Scott Israel, and has a bit of a tainted record himself. But he's not the only critic of Police Women. Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes, who specializes in juvenile cases, has become the chief critic of the show inside the courthouse.

Weekes once asked a judge to throw out all cases that came from the show, saying the Police Women were "serving two masters" by working for both the public and the producers. Indeed, the contract for Penoyer promises her a stipend of $7,500 for the inaugural 2009 season in addition to her sheriff's office salary, with the addition of a 10% pay raise for subsequent years. This led us to give Lamberti a nod in our 2011 "Dirty Dozen" issue. Penoyer said in a legal deposition that she got legal advice to negotiate a second contract, allowing her to seek endorsements.

Penoyer was also involved -- off-camera -- in a strange incident that involved shooting at a man in a parked car. Years ago, her fellow TV deputy Julie Bower allegedly falsely claimed a juvenile suspect had confessed to 10 unsolved car thefts.

The show has repeatedly offended good taste, including a trailer with Penoyer saying "There's always a good time to use a Taser" and a national bus-shelter ad campaign bearing the words, TASER TIME. There's little question what the real thrill of these shows is -- hot babes zapping lowlifes in a suburban S&M fantasy.

Lamberti says a big reason he's allowed the show to film is the fact that producers donate $3,000 an episode to local charities. But he's also drawn criticism from the public defender because some of the producers' money went through the BSO's nonprofit Sheriff's Foundation -- allowing the sheriff to dole it out himself, and look good in the process.

Penoyer has showed up, on personal invitation, to Lamberti's campaign events and other appearances around town. She made an appearance with the sheriff's crew at a Dolphins game but left after a few minutes. Thanks to her and her fellow deputies, the very name of "Broward County" strikes up a very different image in the minds of faraway TLC-watchers than sunshine and coconuts. It's hot babes zapping people, all day long.

Cacciatore, who has one hell of an axe to grind, doesn't stop with some gentle criticism. "I watched the show once," he said. "It reminded me of a bunch of sluts with a badge and a gun who know nothing about police work. I'm glad I'm retired."

Tomorrow, we'll look at the legal questions these shows can raise -- and whether their footage should be admitted as evidence.

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