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Reality bites men in blue

July 9, 2004

Much of the Police Department's top brass wasn't surprised that ABC's documentary series, "NYPD 24/7," proved embarrassing when a police lieutenant described firefighters as "amateurs at work." The brass had opposed doing the show all along.

But it seems the department was surprised about the controversy. Police officials had apparently forgotten the series and remembered only when the producer alerted them the month before the show aired.

In 2002, veteran ABC producer Terence Wrong pitched the cinema-verite idea to Michael O'Looney, then deputy commissioner for pubic information.

Wrong - who had done similar programs about Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore and the city of Boston - told O'Looney the show would follow individual cops that Wrong selected to tell the story of the police culture. The show would appear in the slot of "NYPD Blue" and would be narrated by series star Dennis Franz. A decade ago, the cast of "NYPD Blue," had appeared at Commissioner Ray Kelly's first retirement dinner.

O'Looney, a former WCBS-TV reporter, bought Wrong's idea. "You have to be confident in your institution and your people to let us do that," Wrong said. "We explained the idea to him and he explained it to Kelly."

Wrong said he also met with a number of chiefs, some of whom resisted the project, including Deputy Chief Michael Collins of the Public Information office and his predecessor, Assistant Chief Tom Fahey, who now heads Manhattan detectives. "He attended a bunch of meetings but he was subordinate to the commissioner," Wrong said of Collins. "He is very protective of the department. Fahey said that true-life TV made him uncomfortable and it was not the business of the police to show this, that it would undermine public confidence."

On the other hand, another chief said, "Some say that after looking at it as a whole for the past three weeks it shows the people around the country what cops do on a daily basis. It shows the cops as very human."

Police reporters were flabbergasted that the department would allow such access while often refusing to disclose even the most minute bits of information to the general press.

Over 16 months, ABC crews followed cops around, shooting tape distilled into seven hours. O'Looney left the department in January to become the spokesman for Merrill Lynch.

"I heard nothing from them for over a year," Wrong said. "Only when we alerted them that we had an air date did we come back on their radar."

At the cast party, officers on the show appeared with O'Looney and his successor, Paul Browne, who demanded pre-screening approval, Wrong said. Wrong said that when he refused, the department forbade the show's cops from appearing on "Good Morning America."

Neither Browne nor O'Looney returned calls.

The show began airing on June 22. Then, in the second episode, Lt. Venton Hollifield called firefighters "amateurs at work." The firefighters union spent $100,000 on newspaper ads knocking Kelly, claiming he orchestrated a smear campaign. Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed Kelly and blasted the union. He demanded Hollifield apologize. Hollifield refused. Asked yesterday if he had a position on the show, Kelly said, "No, I don't."

A former top police official said: "Is it worth the risk of seeing cops as human versus the fireworks it has caused? I don't understand what it does for the department. I do understand what it does for the ratings."

Wrong said that he never heard from O'Looney after the cast party.

Staff writer William Murphy contributed to this column.

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© 2004 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.