When the call came from an officer who needed help facing an armed robber at a fast-food restaurant, two members of a reality television show riding along with Omaha police hustled to record the confrontation.
In the chaotic scene that unfolded, one crew member was struck by "friendly fire" from one of the officers, a bullet slipping past his bulletproof vest and killing him, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said Wednesday. The robbery suspect was also killed. The weapon he was carrying turned out to be a pellet gun, though it looked and sounded so real that both witnesses and officers were fooled, Schmaderer said.
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Bryce Dion, 38, of Boston, the audio supervisor for "Cops," is the first crew member of the long-running TV show to be killed while filming police in action, executives with the show's production company said. Police identified the robbery suspect as 32-year-old Cortez Washington, who was on parole from Missouri for a robbery conviction.
Schmaderer told reporters that police and prosecutors have reviewed the "Cops" video of Tuesday's shooting and found that the officers "had no choice" but to open fire, though a grand jury will still be tasked with investigating.
Schmaderer said the incident began when drive-thru customers alerted Detective Darren Cunningham — on his way to a different robbery scene in midtown Omaha — to an armed robbery at a Wendy's. Cunningham called for backup, and Officers Brooks Riley and Jason Wilhelm — along with Dion and a "Cops" cameraman — arrived at the restaurant within 15 seconds, Schmaderer said.
The "Cops" crew followed the officers into the restaurant. There, police confronted a hooded and masked man. The cameraman darted into the dining area, crouched behind a low wall and held up his camera to record the confrontation. But Dion didn't make it past the glass-enclosed entrance to the restaurant. Almost immediately, Schmaderer said, the suspect raised his gun and fired twice.
Schmaderer said three witnesses described Washington firing his gun directly at Cunningham and Riley. "The witnesses described hearing the suspect's handgun being fired and seeing the slide recoil with the shots," he said.
Officers returned fire, hitting Washington, who still managed to run from the store. Officers continued firing as Washington — his gun still pointed at police — entered the glass vestibule, Schmaderer said. It was then that a bullet hit Dion in the chest, Schmaderer said.
Washington collapsed in the restaurant parking lot.
After the shooting, police discovered that Washington's weapon was an air gun that shoots only plastic pellets.
Washington's criminal record included an accessory to robbery conviction from Missouri for which he was on parole. He moved to Nebraska in September 2013, and his parole was due to expire in June 2017.
"Cops" started on Fox in 1989 and is now shown on the Spike network. According to the "Cops" website, the show has been filmed in at least 140 U.S. cities and three foreign countries.
Langley Productions President John Langley and Executive Producer Morgan Langley described Dion as talented — "one of our best" — who had worked for the show for seven years.
"He did something that he loved and was passionate about," Morgan Langley said. "We've been very fortunate over the years; we've never had an incident like this. Now we're dealing with it, and it's a very sad day for us."
In 2010, a TV crew for the A&E reality show "The First 48" recorded a Detroit police raid in which a 7-year-old girl was accidentally killed by an officer. That incident highlighted concerns about whether TV cameras influence police behavior, perhaps encouraging showboating. But some experts and officers believe TV crews increase accountability.
Schmaderer bristled at the suggestion that his officers overreacted knowing that cameras were recording them, calling it "absolutely ridiculous."
The police chief said he accepted the invitation from "Cops" to film in Omaha in the name of transparency. "Personally, I will live with this forever," Schmaderer said. "If I'd have known that this would happen, of course, I wouldn't have done it."