Fans lined up by the thousands last month near Columbia hoping to snap selfies with the TV stars and snag autographs.

The object of their affection? Not actors. Sheriff's deputies.

The fans had watched them on "Live PD," a series that follows patrol officers nationwide and delivers the action on the cable channel A&E a short time later. The show features deputies from Richland and Greenville counties, but departments in the Lowcountry and Grand Strand said they, too, have fielded interest from producers.

Viewers have seen manhunts, pedestrians chewing glass and suspected drug dealers with wads of cash. Deputies have inspired Twitter hashtags.

"It's hard to go somewhere without somebody staring at me," said Kevin Lawrence of the Richland County Sheriff's Department, an affable deputy whose appearances have earned him calls and emails from admirers near and far. "It's humbling that people still respect law enforcement.

"But for every 50 people who like us, there are 50 people who don't want to be exploited for the things they do wrong."

Amid a few rough years for their profession, sheriff's officials see the show as a way to reach community members they might otherwise not. And it has been wildly successful, they say, judging by the 2,500 fans who went to the meet-and-greet pizza party last month in Richland County.

It has some detractors. They express concerns about sensitivity, exaggeration of South Carolina's crime problems and fears that it could further strain officers' relationships with the minorities they want to reach.

Richland County native Andrew Harris, 40, now of Lugoff, said black people are frequent subjects of local traffic stops, so they're often shown on air, perpetuating stereotypes. Harris, who is black, doesn't think authorities and TV producers should lay bare the mistakes of impoverished minority communities for the world to see.

"It's not a bad show," he said. "But it's always showing the homeboy from the hood on Hardscrabble or Broad River (roads). ... The police already have a bad name. A TV camera isn't going to make it better."

'Having fun' on camera

The show resembles the enduring "Cops" series on Spike TV but a key  difference is it airs police action on the same night it unfolds, with a slight delay. From a studio, hosts and commentators direct viewers to incidents nationwide.

Police agencies are not paid.

Originally planned for eight installments, the series' popularity has ballooned since the fall to nearly 50 episodes so far. It will air at 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through at least August.

Dan Cesareo, president of show producer Big Fish Entertainment, said the idea emerged in September 2015 from the national discussion about law enforcement. It came months after North Charleston patrolman Michael Slager had been captured on video fatally shooting Walter Scott from behind after the black man had separated himself from a struggle over a Taser and started running away.

While citizens were commonly recording police with their cellphones, the perspective was one-sided, Cesareo said.

"I think we've tapped into something that has really resonated with current events and how we view law enforcement as a country," he said. "That's what people are responding to."

Richland County was one of the half-dozen agencies featured when the show premiered.

Watchers were rapt in February as Richland deputies searched for Charleston-area residents suspected of shooting at a state trooper.

In May, Lawrence was filmed arguing with a motorist after deputies found marijuana in his car. The black man launched into a racially charged rant about police.

Many are not receptive to the cameras, Lawrence said in an interview.

"When they do something wrong, they don't want the world to know," said the Charleston Southern University graduate, who is black. "But for us, it helps tell the whole story."

But others, who "want to be a movie star," take the chance to speak their mind or run from deputies while on national TV, he said.

The cameras can lighten a situation, too. Responding in December to a suspicious SUV, Sgt. Steven Tapler found a group of friends who said they were "just chilling." They joked and laughed with Tapler.

"Sometimes, the camera really helps the situation," Tapler said on the show. "We were having fun."

'That's the future'

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said his agency got involved because of its past work on A&E's "Beyond Scared Straight," a series documenting jail intervention programs.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive, he said. At the pizza party, fans came from Florida, West Virginia and Ohio.

The deputies have become heroes to viewers ages 9 to 90. They know Lawrence as "K-Law" and refer to Senior Deputy Chris Mastrianni with the Twitter hashtag #Fastrianni, which was made into a T-shirt. He's known for his quick feet in chasing suspects.

Columbia retiree Richard Addy created a Facebook group that has amassed 1,000 local fans.

"It shows the police aren't all bad guys," he said. "They're doing jobs that you and I wouldn't want and without the pay or recognition they deserve."

Thousands nationwide also have posted on the agency's Facebook page, often to praise the deputies' professionalism.

"I think it shows Southern sheriff's deputies in a different light than people might have expected," Lott said. "We have body cameras. We have cameras in cars. But this is the first foray into live. That's the future. ... We want to be on the front end of that."

But there have been bumps in the road.

When cameras showed the body of 37-year-old Benjamin Johnson after he was fatally shot in January north of Interstate 20, some viewers recognized him. His mother said she got word and tuned in before getting an official notification.

"It's just salacious," family attorney Dan Luginbill of Bamberg said. "There definitely is a better way to learn about the death of a loved one before the whole world finds out."

Can't 'win everyone over'

Departments elsewhere have bowed out.

Police in Bridgeport, Conn., withdrew after the city's mayor complained that it inflated crime.

Shortly after a man in Tulsa, Okla., alleged racial profiling when an officer suspected him of wearing gang colors, that city ended its contract.

Other agencies, such as the Greenville County Sheriff's Office, stepped in. The addition inspired Internet memes like this: "South Carolina: The only state bad enough to feature two different departments on Live PD."

Nationally, Cesareo said, 14 agencies in all have joined in.

Others in the Palmetto State have been asked to participate, but Charleston police responded that they "just were not interested," spokesman Charles Francis said.

In Myrtle Beach, police got word of possible interest from the show, but there has been no discussion with producers, Lt. Joey Crosby said.

If an offer ever came to Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, he said he would think about it.

"When you consider that what we do has come under so much fire," he said, "the argument certainly can be made that showing people what we actually do could be a positive thing."

In Greenville County, Master Deputy Drew Pinciaro said "Live PD" eliminates the filter of heavy editing that's employed in "Cops," which came to town two summers ago.

Since April, viewers have seen a sheriff's dog nab a robbery suspect hiding behind a dumpster. He had a knife.

In another instance, deputies came across a man reported to have been arguing with a local store owner. They handcuffed him and uncovered a knife. But the man challenged the deputies for confronting him in the first place.

Paul Guy, a former sheriff's sergeant, is an advocate at the nonprofit Beyond Difference in Greenville and unsuccessfully ran for sheriff last year as a write-in candidate.

"It's focusing on vulnerable African-American communities," he said. "That feeds into a fear of these communities. And for minorities, it strains that relationship with law enforcement even more."

But Pinciaro said there would be little to film if the deputies didn't take the crews into high-crime areas.

"You're never going to win everyone over," he said. "But our hope is that people see what officers face every day and the split-second decisions they make."

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Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the Quick Response Team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.

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