In the aftermath of yet another viral video showing a Black man’s murder at the hands of a systemically racist, broken police force, America’s longest-running source of pro-police propaganda was unceremoniously yanked from scheduling. After 32 seasons — over a thousand syndicated episodes adding up to over three decades’ worth of nearly uninterrupted availability — Spike TV, current home of the landmark “reality” show “Cops,” announced the show’s hiatus would become permanent.
Showrunners for "Cops" maintained that their goal was depicting the “real men and women of law enforcement,” while in actuality offering a heavily edited dramatization.
For decades, showrunners for "Cops" maintained that their goal was depicting the “real men and women of law enforcement,” while in actuality offering a carefully crafted, heavily edited dramatization of a mythic struggle against the urban anarchy threatening to storm suburbia’s gates. It will not be missed.
I came of age as part of the “Cops” generation. Fox’s revolutionary docu-drama debuted in 1989, one year before I was born, when America was dealing with a crack epidemic and widespread concern over rising crime rates and police corruption. The show’s pilot, very much a product of that time, has not aged well. It’s depiction of American policing is both tone-deaf and gaudy, while reveling in racial insensitivity.
One extended uncomfortable segment depicts police officers literally stopping cars with white drivers at the edge of a predominantly black neighborhood and telling them to turn around. Another follows a patrolman to his house to showcase his home life: a stereotypical portrait of a brusque, dismissive husband haunted by his day’s work sitting next to his long-suffering wife in front of the TV. It didn’t take long for “Cops” to refine its format, shifting the focus away from the police officers themselves and onto their suspects.
Growing up, the syndicated show was almost always playing somewhere. I remember watching marathons with my dad on lazy weekend afternoons, mesmerized by the tough-talking cops and law enforcement’s inherent drama. The imposing logo, the anachronistic theme song, the reliable episodic layout — “Cops” wasn’t so much a TV show as much as an adrenaline-inducing exercise in civic pride. Police are always heroes in this story, battling the forces of mischief and evil to keep us secure at night.
That feeling wasn’t an accident. “Cops” marked a turning point in pop culture’s representation and relationship with American police. Now, law enforcement agencies were able to consistently work with a major cable network to craft public perceptions of police work. The PR value was obvious. It’s darkly fitting, then, that this early “reality” television series was itself an oxymoron.
Simply taking “Cops” at face value, one could easily assume an American police officer’s career primarily consisted of (successful) high-speed car chases, never-ending drug busts and street brawls with uncooperative suspects. But it takes only a cursory review of criminal justice statistics to realize this is a hyperbolic invention.
Last year, the podcast “Running From Cops” examined the cultural and criminal ramifications of the show, and came up with some startling figures. According to their research, a person of color is 17 percent more liable than a white suspect to be depicted getting arrested — before an episode’s first commercial break. “Cops” episodes could quickly lead one to believe that most traffic stops result in an arrest, whereas the real-life figure is closer to 2 percent. And despite a marked decrease in U.S. drug arrests in recent years, narcotics-based segments on the show actually rose in that same period of time — comprising 44 percent of the series’ subject matter in 2017.
In the end, it’s what “Cops” didn’t show us that arguably says the most.
But, in the end, it’s what “Cops” didn’t show us that arguably says the most. Given federal content regulations, there are few actual instances of murder caught on camera, which is great for showrunners and their allies on the force. Black citizens are three times more likely to be killed by police during an altercation, despite the fact that they are 1.3 times less likely to be armed than whites, according to data from the independent Mapping Police Violence project.
While the diversity of American police forces largely lines up with national racial demographics, ”Cops” still managed to show around 10 percent more white officers on the show than exist in real life. Likewise, nearly 70 percent of suspects arrested in this country are white, but made up just over half the televised apprehensions on “Cops.” These kinds of numbers aren’t common statistical anomalies — they were conscious decisions made by showrunners.
Just a few weeks ago, the idea of dismantling a major city’s police department to build a new kind of community safety apparatus was a dream for most of us. But with citizens moving to reclaim their right to safety, there will be heated debates in the coming months about how to effectively scale back, defund or outright abolish police forces. After three decades of stoking the worst kinds of race- and class-based animus, one decision needs no discussion: It’s well past time America abolished “Cops.”