Little known facts about 'The First 48'

Crime scene tape and a parked police car
Image: The First 48 (S19)

Following detectives in the critical hours after a murder is reported, The First 48 reveals how forensic evidence is gathered, how witnesses are interviewed and how suspects are identified. Intense and eye-opening, it’s one of the most-watched true crime series on television, but here are some things that even many avid fans might not know about The First 48.

1. It's been around for decades

The timespan of each First 48 episode may be tight, but the series itself is one of the longest-running in the true crime genre. It first aired almost 20 years ago, way back in 2004, instantly intriguing viewers by shadowing different groups of detectives in various US cities. The very first episode took place in Miami, Florida, which would go on to be a “fan favourite” location of The First 48.

2. One of the cops released a rap song

The First 48 is one of the grittiest shows around, but some of the cops certainly know how to lighten the mood and let off some steam. A case in point is New Orleans detective Rayell Johnson, who in 2018 released his very own rap song under the name Ray-L. The beautifully silly video for “9ine to 5ive” kicks off like an episode of The First 48, complete with Johnson turning up at a crime scene, but suddenly gets decidedly less serious with the detective sinking shots in a bar and rapping over the sound of police sirens. There’s quite a bit of twerking, too.

3. The cops aren’t paid to be on it

Fans of The First 48 may wonder if the detectives and the police departments in general get any financial compensation for appearing on the show. Perhaps surprisingly, they don’t pocket a penny. Police agree to take part because they regard it as a valuable way to show the public how they go about their work. That said, things haven’t always run smoothly between the production team and the local officials…

4. Memphis pulled out of the show

Memphis, Tennessee was one location the show returned to time and again over the years. However, the city abruptly ended its partnership with the production company in 2008, over concerns the show was making it look bad. Memphis council member Wanda Halbert said that while 'Memphis is not unlike any other urban city where we have our challenges', it also happens to be 'a great place to live, and we want to advocate that to others and encourage them to visit our city.' The move served as a reminder of how The First 48 is one of the most hard-hitting, uncompromisingly real crime documentary series on TV.

5. It’s been praised for helping detectives do their job

Memphis officials may have been worried about the PR fallout of their city appearing on The First 48, but the show has also been credited with improving relations between the police and the public. For example, Dave Walker of the Tulsa, Oklahoma force has said that the transparency brought by the show has encouraged witnesses to speak to officers about crimes in the city. 'They know my name,' he said in an interview. 'They’ve seen us. They’ve seen us work and do good things. And The First 48 portrays it.'

6. The schedule is absolutely brutal

The First 48 is a punishing programme to film. A small team of camera operators and producers lives in each host city and is expected to be on call 24/7 to cover every single homicide that’s reported. During a Reddit AMA, one First 48 camera operator recounted a typical day: 'I got a call at 1am, didn’t leave the crime scene till 11am, then we chased leads till about 10pm'.

The majority of these cases won’t make the final cut, for numerous reasons, which can be frustrating for the crew who spend so many hours painstakingly documenting every aspect of each investigation.

7. One of the stars wrote a book on PTSD

A breakout star of The First 48 is now-retired Miami detective Joseph Schillaci. Having been an early favourite with viewers, Schillaci bared his soul in a no-holds-barred book called Inside My Prison of Darkness. It delves into the years of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder he’s had to endure as a result of his job – in particular, his participation in a fatal shooting back in 1991, long before The First 48 made him one of America’s best-loved detectives.

8. One episode in particular haunts many fans

A huge number of First 48 episodes have racked up over the years, and every fan will have a particular story that’s stayed with them. However, many viewers single out a episode from 2008 as especially haunting. It covers the fallout of an almost unfathomable massacre that took place in a house in Lester Street, Memphis, claiming the lives of four adults and two children.

Detectives initially thought it was a gang-related crime. In fact, the bloodbath had been triggered by a petty argument between two brothers. One of them, Jessie Dotson, shot his sibling to death, and then embarked on a shooting and stabbing rampage throughout the house to eliminate witnesses (including two young nephews). Dotson, who already had a previous conviction for murder, was handed six death sentences for committing the atrocity, which formed the basis of one of The First 48’s most disturbing episodes.