Police work as entertainment: does the presence of the camera change the way police work?

Bruce, Donna (2021) Police work as entertainment: does the presence of the camera change the way police work? Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


Despite vast research into police factual documentaries, little is known about the participant experience, especially how police themselves regard the construction of their visual images. More recently, questions have been raised about the performance of police as actors in observational documentaries and whether they take different police action or make different operational decisions when being filmed for fly-on-the-wall productions. Several critical incidents have occurred in the United States (US) while police were being filmed for crime shows, prompting people to ask: Does the presence of the camera change the way police work?

As an officer of the NSW Police Force (NSWPF) and coordinator of the Film & Television Unit, I had insider access to conduct this research with police officers who had participated in the making of factual documentaries for the organisation. This enquiry represents the first study of its kind, in that all police officers were asked about their personal experiences of being filmed at work and having their images broadcast on prime-time television.

The results were interesting and differed from information previously delivered by other researchers. My study shows that police do not change the way they work when in the presence of film crews. Of note was that the thoughts and opinions of officers from the NSWPF no longer correlated with those of officers who had undertaken similar studies in the US. NSWPF officers were not regular viewers of crime shows and those shows played no role in their desire to become police officers.

Although police observational documentaries were found to accurately represent the role and function of police, officers believed that crime shows did not provide viewers with an accurate portrayal of the types of work undertaken by police.

The overall view was that police duties had moved from making arrests to more of a role of community engagement. The outcome of the study suggests reviewing the format of police observational documentaries to better reflect the role and function of police in today’s society and not simply portray police work as entertainment.

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