How ‘Cops’ shaped public opinion about police and people of color over the last 30 years

COPS reality TV show has been cancelled.
Courtesy Paramount Network

When a writers’ strike paralyzed the television industry in the late 1980s, networks were forced to find new, alternative programs to fill its air. 
That’s how “Cops” found a home on Fox Television. The low budget program, which had no union writers, was a welcome solution — and it ran for 32 seasons. That is until earlier this week. 
Now owned by ViacomCBS, “Cops” was canceled in the wake of of protests against police brutality and the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer.
The show has long been criticized for its depiction of police interactions with criminal suspects, but high ratings kept the show running and even inspired other networks to create reality TV shows featuring cops. A&E’s “Live P.D.,” one of the highest-rated shows on cable, has also been canceled. 
“As an early reality program, it came across to people as raw documentary,” said Jack Bratich, associate professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. “Nowadays audiences are more savvy about how reality programming is produced, edited and staged. Viewers are aware of how programs present perspectives and invite audiences to identify with those perspectives.”
The appeal of “Cops,” and other shows like it, was the idea that it was an unfiltered look at what police face everyday while on the job. However, this lens was more filtered than most audiences were aware of at the time of its inception and, as the program gained popularity, it began to reinforce racial stereotypes about the Black community.

The reality of ‘Cops’

“One of the first reality TV shows, ‘Cops’ observational style seemed to show the police as the thin blue line holding back the violence and chaos of American inner cities,” said Zoe Druick, a professor at Simon Fraser University, who teaches media studies and cultural theory. 
The show didn’t have a script or a narrator. Audiences were thrust into the action, watching as patrol cars sped toward violent incidents that were already in progress. 
At the time of “Cops” inception, the U.S. was in the middle of its “War on Drugs,” which led to the militarization of police and higher incarceration rates. 
“Their violent policing style was justified by the extreme situations they found themselves in,” Druick said. “In reality, the show was highly edited, with the majority of police work dealing with the outcomes of poverty, addiction and mental illness being left on the proverbial cutting room floor.”
“Cops” filmed in more than 140 cities over the course of its 30 years on television. Police departments granted permission to the program to film in their areas and had approval rights over the footage.
In many cases, police departments asked “Cops” to come and film in their town or city in order to assist with rebranding their reputation and as a means to recruit new officers.
“‘Cops’ was terrific PR for police departments,” said Dan Simon, professor of law and psychology at The University of Southern California Gould School of Law. 
Simon noted that there is a sense of accountability that most people feel when they are being observed. The police officers knew they were going to be filmed for the series, were aware of the norms and expectations people have for officers of the law and were working to uphold that image.
“Some reality shows are games — participants are also contestants, creating personas for the audience as well as for other contestants,” Bratich said. “In the case of ‘Cops,’ this meant creating personas of amused, beleaguered and effective police officers. They constructed images of themselves as ordinary heroes just doing their jobs on the front lines. This peek into the backstage of patrol cops eclipsed the institutional and systemic problems of policing.”

Reinforcing stereotypes

While police officers were glorified, suspects, regardless of their eventual guilt, were criminalized.
“The show drew a line between police and criminals, using the observational format to suggest that we could simply see who was good and who was bad in the situation,” Druick said. “‘Cops’ therefore also implicitly suggested that courts were irrelevant. You could see with your own eyes who was guilty — the very ones police came for.”
Simon noted that studies have shown that over the course of the show’s run it statistically skewed toward Black and Brown suspects, more so than the actual rate of crime in the U.S. Often, he said, these suspects were shown intoxicated, in poor neighborhoods and in poor physical condition. 
“You catch people at the worst moments in their lives and that reinforces the stereotypes,” Simon said.
The structure of “Cops,” which didn’t provide background or context for incidences, pushed audiences to identify with the police, Druick said. Even the “Bad Boys” theme song assisted in criminalizing the suspects even before they were on camera.
“Over the years, [‘Cops’] most likely contributed to the dehumanization of poor, desperate, drug-addicted African Americans and the justification of harsh, militarized policing,” she said.
ViacomCBS and A&E, which is owned by Hearst Communications and Disney Media Networks, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The representation of suspects on reality police shows is part of the reason that protesters have called for their cancellation over the years. Those calls were ultimately answered in the wake of nationwide rallies against police brutality and the bias against people of color.
“By focusing on ordinary situations, reality TV often normalizes certain behaviors,”  Bratich said. “The call to cancel ‘Cops’ was a refusal of police normalization.”

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