In a modern-day version of the Wild West, television is deputizing the American public. Every week, millions of people tune into television programs that reenact crimes and encourage viewers to call in leads. The success of these programs, both in ratings and in catching fugitives, is making television as prized a vehicle for law enforcement as a squad car.
``The FBI loves television,'' observes Milt Alerich, assistant director at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Last week, independent stations across the country aired ``Manhunt,'' a two-hour special about the so-called Green River serial killer, who is suspected of murdering 50 people around Seattle between 1982 and '84. Police suspect he then moved to San Diego, and is responsible for another 30 murders there in the last two years.
With no leads and a rising death count, police turned to television. In the first 36 hours after the show aired last Wednesday, more than 75,000 people called the toll-free hotline to give their tips.
``It's too early to tell if any are definitive,'' says a spokesperson for LBS Communications, which syndicated the program. But the detectives involved in the case ``feel they have a lot of credible leads,'' she says.
Detectives are hoping that enough tips from a particular location will lead them to the killer, who may be anywhere in the country. In the next few months, if the Green River killer is still at large, LBS will try again with a followup show.
Next fall, ``Manhunt'' will become an hour-long weekly program. Then it will join the quickly bulging ranks of crime-watch television programs, which have landed regular spots on the Fox television network, NBC, and local stations around the country.
To date, these programs have garnered relatively little criticism from civil libertarians. Some concern has been expressed, however, over the shows' impact on jury trials and the possibility of mistaken identity.
The popularity of these shows has surprised TV executives who watch the ratings, but not sociologists who watch the American public.
``Americans have a morbid fascination with crime, especially murder,'' says Steven Barkan, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Maine. ``These TV shows are part of that phenomenon.''
More than that, ``the American public is fed up with the level of violence'' in the country, says John Walsh, host of ``America's Most Wanted.'' The show lets people ``take an active role, and feel they can do something about it,'' he says.
`In seventh heaven'
Initially law enforcement agencies were skittish about working with television, concerned that the crimes would be portrayed inaccurately or sensationally, says Mr. Alerich at the FBI.
``There was vigorous debate'' about how far the bureau should jump in, he says. But when FBI investigators saw the viewer response, ``case agents started calling me and saying, `I want to get my fugitive on the show,''' he says.
The reason is simple: These shows have led to a flurry of captures in what were considered dead-end cases. Fox television's ``America's Most Wanted,'' which has been on air the longest, has profiled 114 fugitives since the first show in February. Of those, 33 of them - or 25 percent - have been captured as a direct result of tips generated by the show, according to Fox and FBI statistics.
The show brought new hope to John Johnson, a detective at the Livingston County Sheriff's Department in Pontiac, Ill. Several weeks ago, ``America's Most Wanted'' profiled Joe Sinnott Edwards, a young man who killed his adoptive parents in Illinois in 1983. Mr. Johnson had run out of leads. ``In a five-year-old case, the smoking gun quits smoking,'' he says.
Last March, Johnson tried to sell his case to television. Like dozens of other frustrated officers in local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies who want the TV lightning to strike, he was put on a waiting list.
``When they told me they were going to do this show, I was in seventh heaven,'' he said recently, standing in the wings of the Fox set as the show was about to air. Normally, ``we send out 100 or 200 `Wanted' posters'' with the picture of a fugitive, he said. But with television, ``in one night, we get millions of people to see his face.''
Seconds after the Joe Edwards profile ended, the phone banks in the Fox studio lit up and swamped the 30 operators taking tips from viewers. Interviewed by phone last week, Johnson said of the 500 tips he received from callers, none led to Edwards. But, he added, the show yielded ``very valuable information'' that gave the trail a new scent.
A year ago, ``America's Most Wanted'' became the first weekly show of this ilk to air in all the major markets. About 18 million people tune in each week, and the number is growing with each program, says executive producer Michael Linder. The show regularly squeezes ahead of NBC and ABC in the ratings on Sunday nights.
That has spurred a new genre in television entertainment.
NBC, for example, started up ``Unsolved Mysteries'' in October, turning what had been an occasional special program into a weekly show. Like its Fox rival, ``Unsolved Mysteries'' works closely with the FBI, US Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and local police. Unlike ``America's Most Wanted,'' it touches on noncriminal subjects like UFOs and missing persons.
Last month ABC aired ``Track Down,'' a test program featuring unsolved crimes and a hotline for the public to relay its leads. ABC has not decided whether to make it a regular series.
Local stations are running their own shows, and there will be more than a dozen similar programs being marketed by syndicators this year.
A few, muted objections
To date, civil libertarians have voiced only muted reservations to the programs. The major concern, says Colleen O'Connor at the American Civil Liberties Union, is the ``venue question'' - that is, whether a suspect can get a fair trial if jury members have seen his or her face on television.
Counters Alerich at the FBI, ``it's highly unlikely that you can't find people who haven't seen America's Most Wanted,'' enough to fill a 12-member jury.
Mistaken identity is the other main stumbling block.
Take the case of David Paulin, a free-lance writer in Frederick, Md. About a year ago, Mr. Paulin received a visit from the FBI. A neighbor had identified Paulin, who recently related his story in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, as resembling the suspect whose crimes were reenacted the previous night on NBC's ``Unsolved Mysteries.''
The interrogation took just a half-hour, but left Paulin ``rattled'' and wary of television crime shows.
Wary of treading on civil liberties, television producers have taken steps to safeguard innocent look-alikes, says Mr. Linder at Fox.
For example, each week the show is videotaped by all of the FBI offices around the country. In the closing credits, the fugitive's 10-digit fingerprint code is shown on the screen.
When an FBI agent follows up a lead by calling on someone, the agent can compare the person's fingerprint with the fugitive's code. That doesn't doesn't eliminate the hassle, but does eliminate wrongful arrest, Linder says.
An article in yesterday's Monitor on a television special on the Green River serial killings near Seattle did not report the correct number of telephone calls on crime tips received. Initial reports said 60,000 calls were made, but investigators later said they answered no more than 7,660 calls.