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TV show blows Miami officer's cover

MIAMI - Lt. Joe Schillaci pulls his unmarked car behind a Dumpster and hunkers down, using binoculars to watch a car that a murder suspect is supposed to get into.

A gaggle of teenage girls ambles by, joking and laughing. It doesn't take long before he is "made," the term undercover cops use for someone recognizing a police officer.

One of the girls calls out, "Hey, I know you. You were on 'The First 48'."

It happens all the time to Schillaci, who on this night is in uniform, trying to be inconspicuous, but not bothering with trying to be invisible. He just can't do it anymore.

Over the past few years, Schillaci has become the break-out star of an A&E Television reality show - "The First 48" - about homicide detectives. It tracked detectives for the first 48 hours after a murder, watching them try to find the killer.

Schillaci attracted a devoted following, with viewers gushing over each episode on A&E's online bulletin boards.

His run on "The First 48" ended this fall when he was promoted to lieutenant and transferred back to his old unit ? "Jump Out," as the undercover squad is informally known in Miami. But Schillaci took the cameras with him. He's filming a pilot about running the undercover unit.

Undercover work and television stardom wouldn't seem a perfect fit, but Schillaci is confident he can make it work. First of all, as a supervisor, Schillaci won't be called on to go undercover often. When he does, he's sure he can pull it off, though he'll probably need elaborate disguises.

Knight Ridder News Service

"You've got to realize, a lot of people are so cracked up, they don't realize anything," he said. "They don't even see me. They just see their next score."

Schillaci has actually picked up a prostitute in full uniform, with the camera running.

"I told her I was filming an operation on the set of Miami Vice," he said.

Miami's most famous real-life cop was already accustomed to a certain degree of notoriety in the city's tougher neighborhoods. He spent five years undercover before moving to homicide. In drug holes, he's often recognized as "Ponytail" because he grew one back then to dirty up his clean-cut appearance.

The new show, which Schillaci hopes will air in January, though no date has been set, will feature dope cops working the streets. It will have close-in scenes of Schillaci interviewing drug addicts and trying to talk prostitutes into cleaning up. And true to what viewers of "The First 48" have grown to love, there most likely will be a lot of just Joe, talking about the streets, talking about his passion for police work, talking.

He rarely seems to hold back.

"You got to have passion to do this job," he says. "And the show, it lets people see us as people who care about solving cases, who care about policework."

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