Cops (TV show)
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Films and TV
“”Bad boys, bad boys, what you gonna do...
Cops was a television show whose role is to help promote moral panic over a purported crime, gang, and drug epidemic in the United States, and to glorify harsh law enforcement techniques. The show first debuted on Fox on 11 March 1989. After 25 seasons, Fox canceled Cops in May, 2013. However, cable network Spike TV (later renamed Paramount Network) picked up the series with new episodes debuting in September, 2013.
When it debuted, it filled two needs for Fox:
- It cashed in on the endless public fascination with Crips, Bloods, crack, domestic violence calls from trailer park trash, and big burly guys in SWAT gear.
- It provided Fox with something that a prolonged screenwriters' strike (7 March - 7 August 1988) had denied to TV programmers during the 1988-9 TV season — original programming.
The show features many close-up shots of suspects being wrestled to the ground and handcuffed, or sometimes tasered. The subject matter may have changed somewhat; meth has replaced crack and Mara Salvatrucha has replaced Crips and Bloods, but domestic violence calls from trailer park trash seems to remain a constant ongoing occurrence.
One of the most cringe-inducing aspects of the show involves the coverage of police sting operations. If you watch too much Cops, you might think there are only two types of police sting operations — drug deals in parking lots, and stings that target streetwalkers and their johns.
“”"These cop reality shows that glorify police but will never show the deep level of police violence are not reality, they are P.R. arms for law enforcement. Law enforcement doesn’t need P.R. They need accountability in this country."
|—Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change|
As a time capsule record of American police tactics, it offers up a valuable (and rather frightening) document of an increase in the violent nature of police procedures during the show's run. If you compare episodes from the first ten years of the series with episodes produced in the last year or two, it's difficult not to notice the effect that the introduction of such "tools" as tasers and body armor have had on the demeanor of the average beat cop. Although the officers shown in the series have always been firm with the people they encounter, it's striking today when watching old episodes to see how often officers were willing to talk to citizens in the past. Contrast that with recent episodes where most of those same people would very likely be tasered just to save the officers some time.
Of course, it could just as easily reflect the network's desire to attract that voyeuristic portion of society who enjoy watching crooks and "low-lifes" get violently beat up by cops. While the increase in violence compared to earlier episodes could document an increase in violence among police, it could also document a shift in the type of audience who watches the show. Fox might have decided "violence sells" and ordered the show's editors to include more violent footage in the completed product. One could take the more violent portions of earlier episodes and edit them into an episode that mirrors the modern-day incarnation of the program. In the same vein, one could take the non-violent portions of the program and create an episode that is nothing like Cops. The use of judicious editing can paint entirely different pictures from the same stock of footage, thus making reality shows a terrible picture of reality.
- Tim Stelloh, Bad Boys: How “Cops” became the most polarizing reality TV show in America, The Marshall Project, 22 January 2018
- Dan Taberski, Is the Show ‘Cops’ Committing Crimes Itself?, New York Times, 18 June 2019
- Theodore O. Prosise and Ann Johnson, Law Enforcement and Crime on Cops and World's Wildest Police Videos: Anecdotal Form and the Justification of Racial Profiling, Western Journal of Communications, 68(1) (Winter 2004), 72-91
- Andreeva, Nellie. 'Cops' Canceled By Fox, Picked Up By Spike TV, Deadline.com website, 6 May 2013.
- "‘Cops,’ Long-Running Reality Show That Glorified Police, Is Canceled" by Nicole Sperling, New York Times, 2020 June 15