The cancellation of the long-running reality show puts an end to a problematic ratings hit that was seen by its many critics as unethical and dangerous
In 1989, a new show came on TV that felt like nothing that had come before it. For 30 minutes, viewers got to ride along with real police officers and watch – in verité style – as they broke up drunken fistfights, chased speeding motorcycles across highways, and went undercover for drug busts. It was thrilling. It was visceral. And it was a hit.
Cops, the brainchild of John Langley (and Malcolm Babour and Stephen Chao) was immediately met with critical and commercial success. It received four Emmy nominations between 1989 and 1994. During that first season, the New York Times proclaimed “Cops Camera Shows the Real Thing”. The San Diego Union-Tribune said “Cop Stories Don’t Get More Real Than This.” For decades, Cops was the predominant depiction of real police at work in America.
This week, after more than 1,000 episodes on air and just a day after its 33rd season was scheduled to premiere, Cops was cancelled by the Paramount network. It happened amid protests across the world responding to racist and violent policing in America, and reflects the work of many people, including concerted efforts by civil rights group Color of Change. While cancelling Cops is barely a starting point when it comes to creating a more fair and equitable criminal justice system, this small step is more meaningful than you might think.
I know this because I spent 18 months investigating the show, as part of a six-part documentary podcast that came out last year called Running From Cops, hosted by Dan Taberski. We learned that Cops (and other reality policing shows like it) has a huge impact on how Americans view policing, and how police officers view themselves. Just ask any of the dozens of officers on the show who profess that watching Cops is what made them want to become a cop in the first place.
We watched and analyzed 846 episodes of the show, collecting over 68,000 data points. We catalogued the types of crimes (violent, narcotics, sex work, traffic stops, chases, etc); whether the segment ended in arrest; whether the suspect was on drugs or alcohol at the time; and the race and gender of all officers, suspects and victims. We then compared this data to data available from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
What we discovered was that, contrary to early press reactions, the world portrayed on Cops is not like the real world. There are about four times more violent crimes in Cops than in reality. And three times more drug arrests. And about 10 times more arrests for sex work. The cops on the show are also, statistically speaking, extremely good at their jobs. Segments on the show end in arrest 84.4% of the time. (That number reflects a change over time, from 61% back in 1990 to 95% in the most recent season.) In Cops world, law enforcement officers are so effective, it’s basically a given that a crime will end in an arrest.
The tactics the show’s producers use to get this footage are also questionable at best, and disturbing at worst. We were told that they never air a segment without a signed consent form from the suspect in question. In the course of our reporting, we spoke to 11 suspects who had appeared on the show. All but one said that they had not given their consent, or they were too inebriated at the time to legally give consent. Others told us they were confused by the relationship between the show’s producers and the law enforcement agents with whom they were working side-by-side. We even found a case in Gwinnett county, Georgia, where a young woman was denied a bail bond until she signed the form giving Cops permission to air her arrest for possession of cocaine. Subsequent testing showed that the substance was not cocaine at all, though this was never aired on the show. Instead, the producers aired her arrest, and continued to air it in reruns.
Perhaps the most insidious takeaway we had from watching hundreds of hours of the show was not quantitative, but qualitative. Over and over, Cops shows officers acting in violent, abusive, racist and potentially unconstitutional ways. This can include anything from repeatedly tasing suspects who are in custody, to prying open a suspect’s mouth with a flashlight in search of drugs. Rather than critiquing this sort of behavior, or even presenting it neutrally, Cops portrays it as good policing.
The police departments featured on the show have no problem with this portrayal. In fact, in exchange for access, the producers would give every department they work with “final cut” – the right to edit out any actions caught on camera that might portray them in a bad light. Those departments chose to leave all of those incidents in.
Until a few days ago, Cops was on TV almost constantly. In a single week, it could air as many as 69 times in syndication. It also led to Live PD, which we investigated for Running From Cops as well. In 2016, this new reality policing show arrived and became even more popular than the show that inspired it. It was the live version of Cops, cutting back and forth between active crime scenes being filmed across the country as they happen, while a team of law enforcement vets act as commentators in the show’s New York studio. Picture the NFL’s Red Zone, but with police. Unsurprisingly, it contained many of the same ethical problems as Cops, many of which were exacerbated by the fact that it was broadcast live. In our reporting, we heard from multiple people that police officers would show up to their homes at all hours of the day and night, production crew in tow, hoping to catch them doing something illegal and camera-worthy. LivePD, which aired on A&E, quickly became the most popular cable program in its time slot. It ran in long, multi-day marathon blocks, taking up a significant portion of the network’s weekly schedule. There were six spinoffs.
When Cops was cancelled this week, I could not imagine that A&E would follow suit. Cops was by this point a stale show with dwindling viewership but LivePD was a cash cow (it has just been renewed for 160 more episodes). But I was wrong. Just a day after Cops was canned, A&E cancelled Live PD. The show’s host, Dan Abrams wrote on Twitter that he was “Shocked & beyond disappointed about this.”
Does the violence we’ve seen committed by police officers over the last two weeks – and the protests in the face of that violence – have any connection to these show’s long run? I can’t say for sure. Or rather, I can’t say how much. I can say that for 31 years Cops and more recently Live PD depicted a world full of violence and crime, in which the bad and often demonstrably illegal behavior of the cops on camera was held up as good policing. The shows helped to normalize injustice. And we know that in the real world, that type of injustice is disproportionately inflicted upon black people. We also know that dozens of officers who appear in the later seasons of the show profess that watching Cops was the reason they themselves became cops.
This show shaped them, and it has shaped the way millions of Americans, for more than three decades, perceived the supposed “reality” of policing.
So, what does it all mean – that this show went from near ubiquity to cancellation on the eve of its 33rd season? Is it a sign that something really is different? I can’t claim to know. It is worth noting, though, that the first time there was a massive outcry in response to police brutality during Cops’ run, following the 1992 beating of Rodney King by the LAPD, the show was nominated for Emmys for the following two years.
In 2013, after the murder of Trayvon Martin and in the early days of Black Lives Matter, a campaign by Color of Change convinced Fox to part ways with the show, although it was immediately picked up by another network. This time it’s been taken off the air and it’s unlikely to return.
Henry Molofsky is the producer of Running From Cops