Why TV Cops Are Too Good (or Too Bad) To Be True


Detectives Stephen Holder and Sarah Linden search for Rosie Larsen's kller

The murder of fictional Seattle teenager Rosie Larsen launched the tangled plot of AMC's intriguing, rain-soaked police procedural “The Killing.” The show follows three distinct groups of people involved in the case: the victim's family, the (widening list of) suspects and a pair of homicide detectives who have to wrestle with their own demons while they pursue the leads.

But as we learn during the course of the show, things aren't always as they seem. Former NYPD narcotics detective, John Scaccia, who worked undercover for 15 years and now produces and consults for police television shows, including “Law and Order” and “The Shield” discusses with The Crime Report's Cara Tabachnick some of the pivotal scenes. He also debunks some of the myths about police work broadcast on other police procedurals.

The Crime Report: Tell us about your background.

John Scaccia: I was in narcotics for 13 out of the 15 years I was on the NYPD. I started buying three-dollar bags of weed and ended my career working with Federal Task forces. I also worked on some money laundering cases at the end. It was way cleaner.

TCR: What television shows have you worked on? What are your favorites and why?

JC: I've worked on NYPD Blue, Law & Order, Third Watch, New Amsterdam, Analyze This, Pride & Glory, to name a few. The most realistic show was NYPD Blue, I enjoyed Southland, loved the shield because it was so over the top and ground breaking, and NY Undercover was fun and paralleled what I was doing at the time.

TCR: Crime and police television shows are more popular than ever on American television. What pitfalls should producers of television police procedurals watch out for?

JC: Listen, first everyone has to realize they are watching television. It is entertainment, and producers have some license with that. But it is important that cops are perceived in a fair light. Dirty cops are not systemic; it is individual cops that do dirty work. But there is a perception that this is they way it is. But it's not. I've done undercover work for most of my career and dirty cops put my life in danger. If they are around, other cops want them out. But that's what most producers focus on. Also cops are lucky if they get one or two high-profile cases in their lives, but on shows they get one every week. But it's television, it's extreme.

TCR: Speaking of pitfalls, “The Killing” seems full of them. Detective Holder, one of the main characters on the show is transferred from the narcotics unit to the homicide squad just in time to be the lead on a major homicide. Is that normal?

JC: This could absolutely happen. If you want a career path in policing, homicide is the most prestigious unit. Cops want to go there if they want to move up. So you see narcos go over to homicide. And while they might not get assigned a high-profile case right away, it could happen. It is the luck of the draw. And if you are the detective assigned to the case, you can assign the detectives working with you. But shows always take a lot of license here.

TCR: Holder smokes marijuana numerous times with possible suspects as he tries to find out information about Larsen's killing. He waves off the other detective's concerns by saying that he was smoking “narc scent” or undercover pot. What is undercover pot?

JC: First of all.a cop cannot smoke or do any type of drugs unless they are in danger of physical harm. You get tested all the time. If you get caught with drugs in your system—that's it your out! But as far as using undercover you can't use drugs even to further your cover. So you can turn to different things to simulate smoking. There is fake weed out there that smells just like weed. There are lots of options. For example if you lightly blow on the end of joint you can look like you are smoking. But you have to immediately report it to your supervisor, go to the hospital (for a drug test) and file a report.

TCR: Can undercover officers do drugs with suspects? Do they?

JC: Drug dealers are not getting high. At a high level it is a commodity—especially with coke and heroin. What we have done in the past is to (tell dealers) that you need a clear head to make the deal happen. Listen, I've been involved in crazy stuff– I've lost partners– and I've never had to ingest. This type of stuff would happen at a lower level, but you don't want to get caught.

TCR: Holder is enrolled in Narcotics Anonymous in an effort to beat the addiction he developed during his undercover work. What programs or strategies can police use to navigate a successful life?

JC: That is television entertainment. It's hard to be a drug addict as an undercover. As an undercover you get tested so much, at least three to four times a year. Now they don't just make you pee in a cup, they test hair follicles. Every inch of hair growth goes back a month. They know if you're dirty, and if you get caught dirty you get fired. There is no defense with cops. You gotta keep it like this. It adds integrity to the case.

TCR: Detectives investigating the homicide of Rosie Larsen become intimately involved in her life and case details until it swallows up their own lives. You see this evolution in many police procedurals— how real is this scenario?

JC: It is very real. If you are dedicated, it's your life. It is a young man's game. It is who you become. It is dangerous and messes with your head. You try not to be poisoned, and have some sense of who you are really are. If you cross the line you get fired. When I was doing my thing I didn't hang around with cops. You live it for three months or even for a year or two at the time. But you have to try and not get caught up. It has to be about keeping your eye on the prize.

Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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