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‘COPS’ at 25

The popular reality series confronts an "uncertain and problematic" future

The show “COPS” is celebrating its 25th season on television, the opening strains of its signature opener as familiar as the images of mascara-stained prostitutes, half-naked wife beaters, and obscured faces of a thousand different men, planted in the asphalt by the boot of Johnny Law himself.

After all these years, the gratuitous flash of  “viewer discretion advised,” followed by the COPS trademark and the peal of sirens, still marks a half hour of testosterone-fueled, fast food entertainment, or a prompt to quickly change the channel, depending on who’s on the other side of the remote control.

For teenagers, voyeurs, and red-blooded law-and-order types who’ve made this show one of the longest running in American history, the pioneer cinéma vérité format ratifies the correct order of things—beginning smartly with heroes and villains, and ending with the crank of handcuffs and the door of a squad car slamming on another case, closed.

In between, the raw humiliation of both “perp” and victim on display punctuates a well-worn routine, good for a sanctimonious chuckle at someone else’s expense, inevitably explained away as the price of being morally weak, and stupid. Caricatures abound, and must seem reassuring to some: cornrows and gang tats, toothy wild-eyed white trash, skinny hookers with tracks running up and down their arms. Life’s generic losers.

This civil libertarian viewer on the other hand hasn’t watched this show in years for the visceral, negative response it invariably provokes, beginning with those first reggae pulses of “bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?/Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?” The theme song conjures the third world grit of Bob Marley’s Jamaica, but COPS patrols the streets of Broward County, Florida; Lakewood, Washington; Cincinnati, Ohio. For serious viewers, hearing actual police officers like Russ Martin say things like, “just a normal day, you get to tase a man,” and watching one resigned black youth after another being pig-piled and hauled off by a disproportionate number of jacked-up white cops for a couple of teeny plastic-wrapped bundles of marijuana, is not entertainment, it’s a cringe-fest.

“I watch these COPS shows and they show officers violating the Fourth Amendment routinely, manhandling people, not employing the escalation/de-escalation concepts of the use of force,” Stephen Downing, a retired Los Angeles deputy police chief, screenwriter and producer, told TAC.

“The public is conditioned to believe that it is okay for our police to behave in this manner—they see it in fictional movies and television and they see it on COPS, so it must be okay—until they are on the receiving end and personally experience what it is like to be the victim of police misconduct.”

“Making Crime Pay”

The creators of the show recently announced that COPS might be packing up its cameras for the first time since its auspicious 1989 debut on Fox. Over the last year, the network has gradually replaced COPS in its regular Saturday night lineup with popular FoxSports programming. In November, just before launching the 25th season, co-creator John Langley announced that the network had “slashed” the number of episodes it normally orders for the year, and that COPS’ future was “uncertain and problematic.”

Langley spoke to the Wall Street Journal for a sympathetic Nov. 16 feature that mostly addressed the lucrative and influential history of the COPS enterprise. More so, how COPS has become something of a public institution, complimenting a misunderstood law enforcement culture, and giving rise to a whole new medium. “Before the Rodney King beating and before everyone carried a cell phone camera,” COPS paved the way for “making crime pay,” according to writer John Jurgensen.

Tellingly, the show seems to be headed for the heap but not because people aren’t watching—its prime-time episodes so far this season are still generating an average of 2.7 million viewers (though viewership is down 17 percent from last year’s December premiere). According to this analysis, Fox is throwing COPS over because advertisers are willing to pay more for sports programming, indicating that while its creators still talk up the show’s (disputable) social value, the network’s real concern is that COPS’ fanbase—as with the recently canned America’s Most Wanted, now at the Lifetime network—is not the kind of audience appealing to corporate advertisers.

Still, COPS has forged a formidable legacy. It has spawned more nutty reality-based law enforcement pilots than we can shake a bully club at. Among them, the new “D.U.I, “Police Women of Broward County,” “Cajun Justice,” “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” and of course the thankfully aborted “Lawman,” starring Hollywood mug Steven Seagal, in 2009. The show lost whatever footing it had when a camo-adorned Seagal and his crew joined controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a SWAT team equipped with several armored vehicles in a raid on a farm suspected of hosting illegal cockfights. After crashing through the front gate with a tank and shooting and killing the suspect’s puppy, the cops euthanized 115 chickens on the property while Seagal swaggered around on camera. The show was ultimately sued, along with the sheriff’s department, for killing the dog.

And though the COPS team is emphatic that it works within the law, the show has been the target of civil rights complaints and other grievances from the start. Its producers were accused in 2011 of coercing an 18-year-old African American boy into signing a waiver that would allow them to show his face on television after he was detained (in dramatic COPS fashion — “three knees in my back and my neck”) for loitering in a Tampa county park after dark. He complained later that while handcuffed in the squad car, he was told by a COPS producer that if he didn’t sign the waiver, he would go to jail.

He signed “out of fear,” he told news reporters, and was soon released on a misdemeanor.  Meanwhile, he’s afraid his image will be out there forever, his face on the ground. “I might not be able to get a job,” he said. “They show reruns and reruns.”

What is the ‘reality’ ?

Such protests, and the obvious concerns about the show’s routine exploitation of the poor and minorities, the kicked-in doors, and the dangerous high speed chases, have done nothing to thwart the show’s ultimate success. And both sides enjoy the payoff: the police get the glory as street-wise heroes who never tire, toiling away at keeping civilization in tact, while the producers get the access, the ratings, and at least 25 years in a prominent time slot.

This cozy arrangement calls into question the so-called “reality” depicted in each episode. Creator Langley was quite forthcoming about the show’s agenda early on, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1993:

“Cops,” Langley says, fulfills a need that was once served by the press, back when newspapers did a lot more crime reporting, and humanized the cop on the beat. Now, he says, “There’s often an adversarial relationship between the police and the press. We fill a void. We show the public that these people are human beings, who do a difficult job, and take a lot of guff and a lot of grief.”

Funny, said Downing, who served in the LAPD from 1960 to 1980, COPS might have set out to paint a sympathetic portrait of today’s police force, but what the average viewer encounters today is rampant arrogance and thinly-veiled contempt for suspects and even victims, whom the officers repeatedly refer to as “buddy” and “hon,” while serving up patronizing mini-lectures for the benefit of the audience. In an effort to appear hardened, they come off as unprofessional and imperious as they ham it up for the viewers.

Downing calls it “cowboy syndrome”—the white hats, the black hats, all the resources and virtue stacked on one side. He wonders how much it affects their jobs, playing for the cameras and watching colleagues do the same. They start “thinking that is what is expected of them, it makes them look good—and powerful.”

Plus, we don’t know what’s been left on the cutting room floor. According to Jurgensen’s piece, the show lets the cops vet all the footage before it airs. “Departments will nix clips that show police flouting procedure (such as not wearing seat belts) or that might invite lawsuits (recently, a chaotic car chase).” And what else?

“What disturbs me is that the audience is led to believe that they’re getting a fair peek at ‘real policing,’ but they don’t realize they’re seeing a distorted picture,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, who guesses among the throwaways are “awful mistakes, incompetence, or misconduct.”

Just who are they?

With the proliferation of SWAT teams and the increasing militarization of local police departments, there’s not much left to the imagination. The show is increasingly colliding with real life—especially in places like New York, where there were 700,000 incidents of “stop and frisk” by police officers in 2011 alone, most of them targeting black and Hispanic males. Both on the show and off, “there’s a (police) culture of viewing everyone with suspicion…everyone is a potential suspect,” said Pete Eyre, co-founder of the grassroots police accountability project, COPBlock.org. He says the show perpetuates the notion that “without them there would be chaos.”

COPS seems to struggle with what it really wants their protagonists to be: adrenaline-fueled agents of the law, delivering up cheap thrills and schadenfreude, or righteous public servants, with lives and families just like everyone else. Unfortunately, for every segment where a wife and child are saved from a violent domestic crisis, or the cop really seems to care, there are a handful more like this one that make us recoil in revulsion.

To be sure, not everyone feels this way. A study conducted in 2002 found that reality shows like COPS actually improve attitudes toward police among “whites, males and those with no college experience,” but not surprisingly, worsened attitudes among African Americans.

So while some of us might run out of patience with COPS it will continue to command an audience, if a less lucrative one.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.



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