May 18, 2010 at 1:00 am

'First 48' role debated in girl's death

Victim's family lawyer blames TV presence in fatal police shooting

Aiyana Jones' classmates at John Trix Elementary sang her favorite song to start the school day. (Family photo)

Detroit -- When police fired off a flash grenade and stormed into an east-side flat, film was rolling.

Now some are questioning whether that influenced the events that led to the death of a 7-year-old girl.

The killing of Aiyana Jones during a police raid being filmed by a camera crew for the show "The First 48" raises concerns for some over the relationship between police departments and reality television shows, a relationship that trades exciting video for the promise of positive publicity and improved morale.

The camera crew of "The First 48" was not inside the home on Lillibridge Street when Detroit police detectives, using a no-knock warrant, threw a flash grenade into the home and burst through the door, police said. Moments after the grenade was launched, a police gun discharged, and a bullet struck Aiyana in the neck, according to preliminary accounts.

The show is cooperating with police in the probe, and investigators have examined the footage taken by the crew at the scene early Sunday morning.

Detroit's Homicide Section is regularly featured on "The First 48," which airs on the A&E Network. The show documents the first 48 hours of homicide investigations as detectives scramble to solve crimes while the trail is still warm. The show is gritty -- showing plenty of bodies with faces blurred.

Police departments agree to let camera crews from shows such as "The First 48" and "Cops" follow officers because it's believed the shows will portray police in a good light, said Steven Chermak, professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, who studies the relationship between police and the media.

Often such shows can be a morale boost for officers in departments hit by budget cuts, he said, adding that Sunday's shooting is the first incident he is aware of when a TV crew was present at an accidental police shooting.

An attorney who was representing Aiyana's family before being replaced cast the blame for her death squarely on the presence of a TV camera. The police "were excited; they were on TV," said Oak Park attorney Karri Mitchell. "They didn't have to throw a grenade through the front window when they knew there were children in there."

There is no conclusive research on whether police act differently when the media is present, but "I don't think it would be a distraction," Chermak said.

"There's not much in it for them other than a chance to put their best foot forward," he said. "The major downside is that it provides a video history of events that can be used by criminal defense attorneys or civil attorneys."

"The First 48" has not been without controversy. The Memphis Police stopped working with the show in 2008 after the City Council became exasperated with seeing the city's murders on national TV week after week.

Detroit Police Officer Ed Williams, who used his service weapon to kill his wife, Detroit Officer Patricia Williams, before turning the gun on himself in the parking lot of a Canton Township library, regularly appeared on the show.

Detroit Police 2nd Deputy Chief John Roach said "The First 48" does not pay the department to follow police detectives.

An A&E official declined comment on the incident.

Robert Thompson, who studies the impact of television on society at Syracuse University, said such shows have the potential to do more harm than good.

"When you're about to enter a house armed, you should be thinking of one thing: protecting the safety of everyone involved in the process. I don't know that adding a cameraman and a sound man improves things."

Felicia Ashford brings balloons to Aiyana Jones' home on Lillibridge, ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)