For most of the last two years, Sean Larkin has worked six days a week — four days in the gang unit of the Tulsa, Okla., police department, where he is an officer, and two days in New York City to film episodes of “Live PD,” a live reality TV show about policing.
On Sundays, he traveled. For much of the fall and winter, he’d go out to Los Angeles to see a new girlfriend, the singer and songwriter Lana Del Rey. He escorted her to the Grammys. He joined her on tour. But sometimes she came to Tulsa, too.
Mr. Larkin, 46, who goes by Sticks, didn’t plan for this weird life. He likes simple things: CrossFit, mountain biking.
He grew up the son of active duty military parents, and he attributes his interest in law enforcement to his structured home life and to life in the Bay Area during the late ’80s and early ’90s. “That’s when criminal street gangs manifested into what they turned into,” he said.
He moved to Oklahoma for college, where he spent two years at Rogers State University and then transferred to Langston University for night classes, while he worked full-time during the day.
“I planned on just going to get a degree and then go back to the West Coast and being a cop, because I was a West Coast kid,” Mr. Larkin said. But after he did an internship with the Tulsa Police Department, in 1997, he got hired right away.
Nearly 10 years later, “Live PD” premiered on A&E in 2016, and the Tulsa Police Department was one of six police departments that signed on.
From the start, Mr. Larkin was one of the officers whom the cameras followed on rounds and in the field. Now he’s in the studio, helping to host the show with Dan Abrams (of NBC talking-head fame), analyzing the footage on “Live PD” much like a sportscaster.
‘Feels Like Entertainment With Purpose’
“Live PD” cuts between footage of police officers around the country as they make traffic stops (suspected D.U.I.s, busted taillights), respond to calls (domestic disputes, gunshots) and go on high speed chases (on foot, by car).
It’s all brought to the viewer live-ish. There’s a delay, in case something unusually gruesome happens.
The mission of the “Live PD” is to provide “transparency of policing in America,” said Elaine Frontain Bryant, the executive vice president and head of programming for A&E. “It feels like entertainment with purpose,” she said.
The reality presented is not a fabricated competition, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t winners and losers. Especially if you’re one of the people featured on the show who would rather not be. It’s not uncommon to hear people say they don’t want to be filmed, curse out the camera operator or shield their faces.
There’s no cutaway when these things happens. The show gets by with showing some of the worst moments of people’s lives without their consent because it’s live, according to an A&E spokeswoman. “‘Live PD’ follows news gathering standards like any news organization — your local nightly news show or newspaper — would in covering a story,” she wrote in an email.
There is a disclaimer before the show: “Not all outcomes are known or final. All suspects are presumed innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law.” But the audience never finds out what happens to those who are arrested.
Ms. Frontain Bryant says the show is about what’s happening in the moment.
When asked whether it’s fair to record people who might not want to be recorded in their interactions with police, she said she could see why some people might be upset.
“Would it suck if I was being pulled over and a camera was there? It would,” Ms. Frontain Bryant said. But, she noted: “They’re being pulled over for something.”
There are some people on the show who seem happy, or at least OK, about getting their 15 seconds of fame this way. They notice the cameras and ask “Is this ‘Live PD’?” or wave and say “Hi Mom!”
Mom very well may be watching. According to Nielsen data, “Live PD” averaged nearly 2.4 million viewers last season, which was its third. It airs for three hours, every Friday and Saturday night.
It’s so in demand that now there’s even more. There’s “Live PD Presents: PD Cam,” which Mr. Larkin hosts, and “Live PD Presents: Women on Patrol” and “Live PD: Roll Call” and “Live Rescue.” There’s “Live PD: Wanted” and “Live PD: Police Patrol” and “Alaska PD.” And there’s “America’s Top Dog” — which features “top K9 cops and civilian dogs alongside their handlers as they compete nose-to-nose,” according to the show’s website.
Mr. Larkin helps decide what viewers see. If a disturbance in Tallahassee gets a little boring, he’ll cut to an abandoned car in Richland County, S.C., or a knife fight between brothers in Lawrence, Ind.
‘Taking Pictures and Answering Questions’
You can try to get Mr. Larkin to tell you how he met Del Rey, but he won’t. (They crossed paths through work in New York and “just kind of hit it off from day one,” he said.)
But it didn’t take long for Del Rey to confirm the relationship, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times that was published the month after. “I didn’t know we were being photographed,” she said of their first date, a Central Park stroll that was captured by the paparazzi. “I would’ve worn something different.”
When Del Rey started dating Mr. Larkin, she was about to release the biggest and certainly most critically acclaimed album of her career. But “a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, did you even know who she was?’” Mr. Larkin said. “Like, of course I knew who she was.”
They did “boyfriend, girlfriend type of things together,” Mr. Larkin said. In L.A., they went to the beach and watched people surf. They went shopping and grabbed coffee. In Tulsa, they ran errands. They went to Target. It was “very low key,” he said.
But of course there was some glamour. “I was asked if I was nervous and not at all,” Mr. Larkin said after the Grammys, where he walked the red carpet with Del Rey. “We drive cars 120 miles per hour, and I don’t want to sound like a tough guy, but I mean, when you’re behind a known shooting suspect and he jumps out the car running, you’ve got to get out chasing.”
The Grammys, by comparison, were more tame.
“Taking pictures and answering questions. I’m not trying to sound like a bravado tough guy, just like, you know,” he said, and paused. “It was enjoyable, for sure.”
Mr. Larkin says the relationship was pretty normal. “When we were in Tulsa we hung out with my law enforcement friends and their spouses. We all Super Bowl partied together, dinners and things like that,” Mr. Larkin said. “Normal things couples do with their friends.”
Still, telling his 17- and 22-year-old children about “Dad’s new girlfriend” got the expected reaction, Mr. Larkin said: “They were kind of blown away.”
Mr. Larkin finds out about new music from his kids, which he said “helps me stay relevant. As silly as it sounds, even in my job as a police officer.”
“If you stay on top of music that some of these guys are listening to, it’s something relatable,” Mr. Larkin said of people he encounters in the course of his work. “If you stop them in a car and they’ve got whoever playing the radio, and you know who it is, you start talking to them about it, and it’s kind of an icebreaker.”
In any event, he’s not seeing any musicians at the moment. “Right now, we’re just friends,” he said of Del Rey. “We still talk and whatnot, we just have busy schedules right now.”
Start to Finish
The most viewed police footage of the past decade has been scenes of brutality against black and brown people, much of it captured on phones. Philando Castile’s death was witnessed on Facebook Live; a bystander filmed the choking death of Eric Garner.
It’s clear why police departments might want to participate in a TV show that is filmed from their vantage point. Plus, Mr. Larkin pointed out, “Live PD” could offset preconceived notions that come from entertainment, too.
“A movie like ‘Training Day’ came out, great movie, loved it. But it painted police in a bad light. ‘The Shield,’ which was a TV show that was used to be on FX, great show,” he said. “But the cops are these rogue guys who run around stealing drugs, and committing murders and things like that.”
“It makes great for TV,” Mr. Larkin said, but for people who have had bad experiences with police or in life or “just whatever reason, they see these things and they think that’s how the cops really are.”
And if some cops act illegally, Mr. Larkin doesn’t want that to be how all are perceived. “Look, that’s a different cop. Doesn’t mean that I’m that same cop.”
Del Rey, who did not respond to a request for comment for this article, described Mr. Larkin to The Los Angeles Times as “a good cop. He gets it. He sees both sides of things.”
He’s not naïve enough to think the backlash toward police from many black and brown communities comes from fiction. But Mr. Larkin sees “Live PD” as a tool, a way to let the public see what policing is like, beyond cellphone footage.
“I think that if we get the whole story and the officer was in the wrong, hey, he was in the wrong,” he said. Because it’s live, he added, the public gets to see what happened in an encounter with police from start to finish, a chance for the audience to say, “‘Well, the reason the officer did this is because we saw what the officer had to do.’”
Some U.S. cities have begun to see it differently. Several police departments have ended their cooperation with “Live PD” over concerns about bad publicity. When Bridgeport, Conn., decided not to renew its contract with the show in 2018, a spokesman for the city’s mayor told The Associated Press: “If that’s the only thing that’s being publicized nationally about our city, it can have a negative impact.”
Mr. Larkin’s own department in Tulsa pulled out of the show for two years beginning in 2017 after facing backlash from community activists before returning this season, according to the Tulsa World.
It’s been a hectic few years. Now, Mr. Larkin is on a bit of a sabbatical, taking a leave of absence from the Tulsa Police Department. He is still working on “Live PD” but wants to spend more time with his son before he goes off to college. Plus, everyone deserves a break.