The Unreality of Cops

For 32 seasons, the longest-running reality show in history sold a valorizing view of police that’s never seemed more out of touch.

The Atlantic

Of all the charges you could level at Cops, it’s hard to accuse it of stinting on action. Until its cancellation this week, the 31-year-old reality series endured for so long because, despite the unvarnished nature of its presentation and concept (just regular cops filmed doing real police work!), it stuck rigidly to a fast-paced format. Each episode runs about 22 minutes long and has three acts, within which a suspect is located, investigated, and—mostly—arrested. The arrestees are often referred to as “bad guys,” and they get no backstory, no biography beyond what they volunteer to the officers in front of them. They’re human beings reduced to the sum of their rap sheets, or to their mental and emotional state on the particular day that the cameras are rolling.

The cops don’t get much more by way of characterization, although they occasionally throw out one-liners to the accompanying cameramen to acknowledge the viewers at home. I was reminded of this detail when Officer Tou Thao of the Minneapolis Police Department cracked, “This is why you don’t do drugs, kids,” to the assembled crowd watching the killing of George Floyd in real time. The line struck me as something someone might say if they had grown up watching Cops, and had absorbed the show’s motifs as emblems of police work. In Cops’ world, the police are by default the good guys, because theirs is the only point of view the camera follows. Fleeing suspects must be captured because—on Cops—they’re always guilty of something. And the structure of the show’s acts, punctuated by ad breaks, means that the good guys unfailingly capture and overpower the bad guys in a matter of minutes.

Never have these qualities felt so out of touch. That Cops was still in production shocked some people this week, given how much it seemed like a relic of the late ’80s and ’90s, something unearthed from a time capsule alongside The Tracey Ullman Show and the “Just Say No” antidrug campaign. But that the series was finally canceled by the Paramount Network, where it had moved after 25 seasons on Fox, was less surprising. Cops has been drawing critiques for years, most recently in a 2018 Marshall Project feature and a 2019 podcast that both probe its simplistic, heavily one-sided portrayal of police work. In a moment that’s considerably less inclined to blindly accept valorizing shows about law enforcement, Cops isn’t the only casualty: A&E’s wildly successful weekend series Live PD was also canceled this week, with the network stating that it was rethinking storytelling about police at “a critical time in our nation’s history.”

For the first 20 years or so that it was on air, Cops framed itself as a dynamic, “real” look at police work, filmed by a minimal crew on shaky handheld cameras and offering viewers a raw, unpolished look at what the men and women who keep America safe endure every day. The pilot, filmed in Florida’s Broward County, features Sheriff Nick Navarro orchestrating raids of crack houses and bemoaning all the funerals he’s attended for officers gunned down in the line of duty. “We’re just here to look for some drugs and keep some bad people off the streets,” his deputy Jerry Wurms explains to the camera. The synthy score is very early Baywatch; the overall portrait the show paints is of a country in which criminals and drugs are ludicrously rife and uniformed officers are the only thing standing in the way of apocalyptic societal collapse.

But Cops wasn’t really portraying reality. It was propaganda, crystallized and edited into addictive portions, served up without any of the local context or personal information or historical detail that might slow down the rush of seeing so-called criminals taken off the streets. It was the longest-running prime-time show in the United States, and it was always filmed in partnership with local police forces. For every minute of action that made it to air, 100 were reportedly filmed, meaning that what viewers saw each week was an aggressively purified vision of police work, approved by the same departments that had invited Cops to accompany them in the first place. As the writer and producer Dan Taberski lays out in his six-part 2019 podcast, Running From Cops, the show helped usher in an age of comity between police and the media. Before Cops premiered in 1989, public confidence in the police was at historic lows, while crime rates were surging nationwide. But the series enabled the transformation of officers into stolid, crew-cutted avatars of order. And even more than that, it turned police into protagonists, whose point of view became quietly aligned with that of the viewers watching at home.

Cops became a reliable recruiting tool for police departments across America. It also became a way for disgraced units to rehab their reputation on camera. As a Vox documentary points out, the Los Angeles Police Department finally agreed to give the show access in 1994, two years after riots erupted over the brutal beating of Rodney King. In 2014, after years of rebuffing outreach from Cops producers, the Omaha Police Department in Nebraska also relented, in part to help bolster public faith after an excessive-force incident that had led to the termination of six police officers. (The partnership later became infamous when an officer accidentally shot and killed a sound technician from the show during a robbery.) In 2015, after video emerged of police officers in Salinas, California, beating a man who appeared to be incapacitated, Cops was similarly invited to town to restore the local law-enforcement brand.

In its early seasons, Cops did feel more real, for better and worse. In the pilot, officers show their biases, dragging cuffed black suspects down the street while later letting white ones go with a warning. “If your license is good, I’ll give you a little slap on the wrist, tell you to be on your way,” Deputy Wurms tells one guy who’s been stopped while buying drugs. “I’m just trying to get these white boys to stop coming in here,” he explains to the camera. They “don’t belong here.” Another episode emphasized how wrenching police work can be, showing a female officer crying as she left a 2-year-old with Child Protective Services, in less than favorable conditions. But Running From Cops computes some of the ways in which the series tweaked itself to make for grabbier entertainment. Two percent of traffic stops in the real world, Taberski explains, end in arrest. On the show, it’s 92 percent. Cops portrays almost four times as much violent crime as occurs in reality, three times as much drug crime, and 10 times as much prostitution. In later seasons, producers started editing clips together into “best of” compilations with grabby names, such as a “Ho Ho Ho” series focusing on sex workers arrested over the holidays. Recent seasons of Cops have seemed even less like documentary than straight sideshow, served up online for YouTube clicks under questionable titles such as “Grandma, Chicken, and Meth.”

But what seems to have damned the show most of all, and facilitated its overdue end, is actual documentary video—captured not by professionals, but by bystanders with cellphones. If Cops is a simulacrum of American police work, polished and cut and spliced into a hollow replica, the videos of police officers killing Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Keith Lamont Scott, Danny Ray Thomas, Eric Garner, George Floyd, and too, too many others are indubitably real. And in recent weeks, videos depicting officers abusing their power—in response to largely peaceful protests across the country—have flooded the internet. No producers have edited the footage showing officers in Buffalo, New York, pushing 75-year-old Martin Gugino onto the ground with such force that they damaged his brain. No police chief has approved the videos of NYPD cruisers hurtling into crowds, sending protesters literally flying. The era of valorized cops on TV is over.

Over the past few days, while I watched old Cops episodes on YouTube, I kept getting the same ads over and over. Some were for Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, but others were for the Baltimore Police Department, apparently still hoping to capitalize on Cops as a recruiting tool. “Be a part of the greatest comeback story in America,” the spots urged. It’s hard not to think that kind of recovery, this time, will demand much more than television can offer.