In the early 1990's before reality TV was so prevalent, I can remember watching the classic show ‘Cops' and being intrigued. Sure there were the car chases, the volatile confrontations, and all that; but there was always something else that made me stay up late on friday nights and follow these boys in blue in gangland L.A. And while Hasst and Hollywood are literally a world away, twenty years later I got to explore this fascination first hand.
Before I continue with my ramble, I do need to explain a few things. Firstly, my experience is with a limited number of officers in the Highway Patrol. While they focus on traffic law enforcement, they do regularly respond to wider police issues. I have spent around a thousand hours with individual officers and have experienced AOS call-outs, angry knife welders on the loose, as well as sheep on the road and embarrassed grandmothers doing a few K's over the limit.
Secondly, my experiences are limited to about a dozen officers in the Tasman District, and a few in the wider South Island. I am not a closet vigilantly, nor have any extreme views about law and order in general. I am simply a cameraman who has experienced something.
I have filmed a couple of seasons of Highway Cops and would love to film some more given the opportunity. Essentially, I tagged along with a single officer for their 10 hour shift. Yes, 10 hours with one person, sitting in a car. Thankfully, all the officers I filmed were incredibly normal. Apart from the whole cop thing, they were just normal people in a extraordinary job. The stations were similar to other business offices. A tea room, reception area, toilets. Most stations were actually quite run down, a tad ragged even, but they still had the boxes of charity chocolate in the smoko room and posters of polar beers telling people to get their prostates checked.
A few times I spent more than one concurrent shift with an officer. In Oamaru, I spend 5 days with one officer. I also travelled to Haast for three or four days with another officer. Being Haast, in the evenings all we could really do is hang out a the bar together and eat pub food. Good times, but that is a lot of time to spend with another man!
Thankfully, the feedback the production company received regarding my interpersonal skills was positive. I'm sure the officers would have pulled the filming if they didn't like me. I learnt that my inquisitive nature and flippant sense of humour helped in these situations. I may laugh at inappropriate times and not have much life experience, but at least it gave us something to talk about!
While most times the officer has an end destination in mind, such as Golden Bay or Blenheim, the road they take, where they stop is almost completely up to them. It gives a certain sense of freedom to the start of such a shift, plus the whole thing about being an officer is you never know what will happen.
The situation that comes to mind regarding this was one unassuming morning heading towards Richmond. A call came over the radio of a cyclist lying prone on the ground after a an accident during a road race. Whilst dealing with this, I was filming the officer giving a brief piece-to-camera, when the call came that an elderly rubber-necker had almost wiped the crowd of cyclists at the event. We proceeded to start searching for the driver in Brightwater. Whilst filming the officer telling us who he was searching for, we drove passed the fire station that had it's sirens going. A call then came on the radio of an incident on the State Highway not far from us including a fire. We abandoned the search for the rubber-necker and proceeded at haste to the car crash. We passed a rather large bush fire on the side of the road which had been caused by arching powerlines, due to a car crashing into a pole 500 metres down the road. A man had blacked out at the wheel, speed up and hit the back of a muscle car turning on to a side road. The muscle car did a 180 and ended up poking out a hedge. The unconscious mans car hit the power pole with enough force the sheer it at the base. Power lines had snapped and were all over the road, still live and arching. The ambulance with the injured cyclist from the earlier incident were the first on the scene, with the fire engines on the way.
By the time the officer and I dealt with all of this and found a cup of coffee somewhere, it wasn't even lunchtime. For everyday that had something like that happen, there would be 3 where nothing much at all happened. To be honest, given the long shifts and additional work I had to do. I even dozed off a few times when on the road.
Traffic was so thin in Haast, that I filmed the officer on his knees swearing and cursing for a car to come to give us something to do. The gods appeased him and one appeared. He jumped in the car but just sat there. “Are you going to radar him?”, I asked. “He's too far away to be in range”. We waited for the car to approach, it was doing 87km/h. Exciting times indeed.
I have been asked about my own personal safety. I've never been in a fight in my life and to be honest, wouldn't know what to do if I was. I was threatened a few times during the filming, but there is a strange detachment that occurs when looking through the eye-piece of a camera. I have encountered it before while filming from a helicopter. We were quite high up and banking and there were no doors on the helicopter so we could film easily. I stopped at one stage mid-filming and had a sudden realisation of what I was doing, before then I was completely unfazed.
When asked about my experiences filming the show at parties or where ever, I shy away from recounting specific encounters. The more ‘interesting' ones are shown on the show and I'm not much of a story teller. For me personally, I was more interested in a couple of other areas. Firstly, it was the first real time I had actually questioned the morals of what I do for a living. I was required to film everything that happened when I was on the shift. Given that 80% of what police officers do is write out speeding tickets to ‘everyday' kiwis who were not only embarrassed to be pulled over by a cop but then to have a guy with a camera filming it - they weren't that pleased, let alone entertaining!
Younger people weren't as intimidated by the camera, and in fact, most actually reveled in it. One particular minor infringer actually joked about punching the officer to ensure the footage was used on TV. Another group of travelers took me on a tour inside their campervan, completely unfazed by the underpants on display.
Older people were very intimidated by the camera, swearing and threatening physical harm. I was always very keen to tell them of their rights, as well as my own. I was often threatened with court cases, in which case I was more than happy to provide them with all the details they needed.
Everyone has the right to use a camera in a public space - you cannot stop someone from filming you or taking your photo if you are in a public area. It is what is done with the footage that is important. You cannot be identified without explicit authorisation. That doesn't mean the footage can't be used, but number plates and faces have to be blurred.
While I can appreciate the situation people pulled over were in, a minor traffic offence is not going to included on the show.
I soon managed to rationalise my involvement in the situation. Which brings me to my second point, when asked about the show at parties. I was more surprised about what I learnt about the general population than I think I did about the Police force. There are a lot of people out there driving unwarranted, unregistered cars who feel that they have the right to speed. There are issues of civil liberties here, of course, but this is still anti-social behaviour. I filmed a few drunk drivers and their attitudes were also quite shocking. One even took his claim to the High Court! I don't why people think they can get drunk at lunchtime and still think they can drive a car and not think that this is a bad idea.
I also encountered people who thought they were some who exempt from the rules that apply to everyone else. More than once, infringers tried to use their role in similar areas to the Police as an excuse. One even called me unprofessional for not having a business card and having to write my details on a piece of paper - after he had been caught speeding and flashing a military ID card as soon as he was stopped.
I was also caught up in a very minor media storm when I ended up filming a celebrity who felt he could ride a bicycle on the footpath, on the wrong side of the road without a helmet. He got quite agitated about the camera, and was more concerned about me than the policeman. Due to the minor offence and knowing he wouldn't give permission for the footage to screen, I stopped filming to let the officer write out the ticket in peace. While the officer did give me grief about the apparent nepotism, it was more my producer I was worried about. Stopping filming isn't a good thing to do. My hopes that they would skim passed the raw footage were soon made redundant as the celeb not only wrote about the incident in the Sunday Star Times, but ranted about it twice on his national radio show complaining about privacy invasions! My producer rang me before they had even seen the footage, thankfully they understood the situation.
While I can say I learnt much about people's attitude towards the Police, it was the personal experiences and motivations of the officers that also surprised me. Every officer has at least one story that will shock you in such a way that you'd probably need some type of physiological counseling. Crazy stuff goes on and these people are the ones who have to deal with it. It is easy to think that even the Traffic Patrol are essentially desk jobs in cars, but they have all spent time as street cops, plus still face potentially violent situations everyday.
I had to film 50 gang members being stopped at Pelorus bridge. Patched gang members and their cohorts are intimidating. Sure, most go home take off their leathers, put on the PJs and settle in for a night on the couch after a day thinking they are Marlon Brando, but when they are with their mates and angry... it can get a bit tense.
There were three cops trying to handle this crowd. Nice cops too. We had just had an ice cream due to the summer heat. They knew that if one biker got over the bridge, all of them would stream across and wouldn't stop. One cop literally stood in the middle of the road with his hand up as a biker jostled him with his Harley. It might not sound impressive, but it was.
These experiences have only increased my respect for Police of all types. The ones I got to know had a genuine sense of responsibility for the safety of the general public. They want to help people, plus they see the darker sides of society and humanity. Which leads me to my last point. People have asked me, what's the best way to deal with a cop when pulled over. From my experience the best thing to do is to be friendly to them. Be honest. Admit it if you were traveling a bit fast, or your rego has expired. Each officer does have a certain amount of leeway if they think you are being genuine.