Two years ago, a television crew gathered in the small town of Hawkins, Texas, to film the life and work of Manfred Gilow, the police chief there.
Cameras followed Gilow as he and his agents answered calls, handcuffed wrists and searched vehicles for drugs. The program was not available on Texas televisions; Gilow is from Germany, and that’s where “Der Germinator” (a coat rack of “German” and “The Terminator”) aired.
Last year, following the cancellation of nationally-broadcast police shows “Cops” and “Live PD”, “Der Germinator” filmed a second season. But the outlook for a third may have dimmed last week, when the Texas legislature passed a bill that would prohibit law enforcement from allowing reality TV crews to film officers on duty.
“The police are not entertainment,” said James Talarico, the representative of the Democratic state who introduced the legislation. The office of Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, did not respond to requests for comment this week on whether he would sign the legislation.
Police reality shows, Talarico said, “rely on violent encounters between citizens and police to raise their own ratings.” He cited an investigation by The Austin American-Statesman, which reported last year that law enforcement officers in Williamson County, Texas were more violent when “Live PD” cameras were rolled.
The bill, which the legislature passed with bipartisan support on May 13, is named after Javier Ambler II, a 40-year-old father of two who died in 2019 after Williamson County officers arrested him from force in front of a “Live PD” film crew. .
Ambler’s sister Kimberly Ambler-Jones, 39, said she believed her brother would still be alive if the TV crews hadn’t filmed. “Because they had ‘Live PD’ there, it had to be excited,” she says. “It had to be a drama.”
This show was deleted last June. The same was true of “Cops,” which had broadcast arrests, confrontations and car chases on televisions across the United States since 1989.
The cancellations came amid nationwide protests against the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. They also followed years of campaigning by racial justice organization Color of Change, which has been pushing networks to ditch “cops” since at least 2013.
But with two flagship policing programs already canceled, it’s unclear whether the law would have immediate effect if approved by Abbott.
A reality TV series set in Texas called “Lone Star Law,” on Animal Planet, could most likely continue to film as long as it focuses on wildlife and game wardens, Talarico said.
“Der Germinator”, on the other hand, could be in danger.
Gilow argued that the show should be allowed to continue, calling it more of a documentary than a reality show. He said it gave German viewers a glimpse into life in the United States, as well as an edifying account of the aftermath of the crime.
“I think it’s positive,” Gilow said. “But there will be people who hate it because they hate the police.” He added that the show did not violate any human rights and blur the faces of people who did not consent to be filmed.
Ambler-Jones said she hopes Abbott will sign the bill – and similar legislation will extend beyond Texas.
“I know people feel like it’s just entertainment,” she said of the reality TV shows. “But you don’t understand what the person on the other side of the camera is dealing with.”
For months after Ambler’s death, his family did not know what had happened to him – only that he had died in law enforcement custody. Details became public last year, after The Austin American-Statesman and media outlet KVUE obtained body camera footage.
Ambler was driving in the Austin area on March 28, 2019, when Williamson County MPs tried to stop him because he had not dimmed his headlights to match traffic, officials said. After MPs tried to stop Ambler, authorities said, he continued to drive for more than 20 minutes before crashing his vehicle.
Body camera footage showed officers restrained Ambler and tasered him on several occasions. “I have congestive heart failure,” one might hear. “I can not breathe.”
Ambler was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead. “PD Live” footage of the arrest was never shown on television.
Since then, Williamson County officials have faced several lawsuits related to reality TV footage. Two MPs were charged with second degree manslaughter in Ambler’s death, and the former county sheriff, who lost his seat after the November election, was charged with tampering with evidence. They all pleaded not guilty.
A Williamson County spokeswoman declined to comment due to an ongoing litigation. Big Fish Entertainment, the production company behind “Live PD,” did not immediately respond to questions sent by email.
Talarico said he hoped the legislation, if signed by the governor, would prevent “cops” and “live PDs” from Texas for good. “Without the force of law, nothing prevents these shows from coming back,” he said, “apart from their own conscience”.