When I was growing up, I used to dog sit for my neighbors when they would go out of town. Aside from walking into a weekend of alone time and a fully stocked pantry, I was also treated to a completely different kind of escape; cable tv. They had a plethora of channels to choose from, free movies and shows on demand, and a big screen to consume my brain for hours at a time. Most afternoons were spent playing fetch and flipping through channels when the dog had enough fun for the time being. One afternoon, I sat browsing, when my eyes stopped on a channel I didn’t have at home, Spike, and their continuous marathon of one show for the remainder of the day, COPS.
I sat and watched a handful of episodes in what felt like 30 seconds. The shows pacing starts at 100 miles per hour and doesn’t let up for the run time. I didn’t really like it, but I felt a dark and curious parasite creep through my thoughts and consume my brain in a matter of seconds. The faces of people arrested and broadcasted for all to see felt familiar, like I’d see them walking around my suburban hometown. Watching COPS made me feel as if I was doing something I shouldn’t, like reading someone’s diary or picking up the home phone line when it was already in use.
On June 5th 2020, Variety reported that COPS and Live PD, a similar show following law enforcement’s movements live on air, were being pulled from TV programming in response to the protests over the death of George Floyd, (1). Days later, on June 9th 2020, Dateline reported that COPS had been cancelled by Paramount Network, and A&E would be “evaluating the right time” to bring Live PD back, (2). I never thought we would see the day that COPS was no longer. After facing, and combatting, critique for its 30 years on the air, COPS always managed to skate by controversy and maintain its core fan base.
Dan Taberski, a documentary filmmaker and podcaster created the podcast series Running From Cops, in which Taberski breaks down the arrest statistics on COPS versus the arrest statistics in the real world. John Langley, the show’s creator, believes the purpose of cops is to educate the public, however, Taberski states in the episode, “COPS turned policing into content,” (3). COPS front-loads crimes committed by non-white people. As stated in Running From Cops, 44% of Black citizens on the show, and 50% of Latinos, are shown as being arrested before the first commercial break (3). If the main focus of COPS was to show what police officers do on a daily basis, employing techniques used by TV writers immediately removes credibility. COPS used non-white people as a ‘hook’, and therefore using the over-policing of POC as a plot device.
After not watching an episode for nearly 5 years, I decided I would pick a random episode to watch for this essay. I wanted to analyze the show itself, and see the way the show portrayed law enforcement before they were under international scrutiny.
I watched the first segment of season 22, episode 3 of COPS on June 23rd. This episode was aired between 2009-2010, but uploaded to YouTube in 2014. The segment was filmed in San Bernardino County, California, and Deputy Jason Whitsell is responding to a call of someone breaking into an empty residence. Three minutes into the episode, they find the man hiding in a sliding door closet. Within seconds, 5 officers are breaking down the door to reveal a man cowering inside. One officer yanks him onto the ground face first, and the remaining four officers pile on his back, grabbing for his bloody hands and pulling them into handcuffs behind his back. They then empty his pockets, pulling out loose change, single dollar bills, and small loose screws and bolts. The man, still face first, says he was trying to find somewhere to sleep. The officers rip his pants and pull down his underwear to just below his waist. They hold him down, and then berate him for not being able to stand. Once the officers have placed the man inside the patrol car, they return to the house. One officer says, “It’s nice to actually have one (burglary) occur, and we catch the guy inside the house,” (4).
I paused the episode. Watching five officers pull a bleeding man out of a closet and hold him face first on the ground was a haunting parallel to the images that have been circulating the internet for weeks. I thought I would be able to stomach a full episode, but couldn’t. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department released a statement on June 12th 2020, detailing their response to each of the #8CantWait police reform agenda, in which they state they will ban chokeholds and strangleholds, and require de-escalation, amongst other claims, (5).
COPS ran almost unchecked for 30 years. Its sudden fall was cause for celebration for some, while others disdained it’s cancellation. While the debate can carry on, I have a deep unrest in my core after researching the show for just a few hours. COPS was glorifying police violence and police brutality, rewarding the officers they proudly followed for horrendous acts. COPS was enforcing the image of “thugs” and “addicts”, punishing people for being homeless, and for having the illness of addiction, while simultaneously perpetuating dangerous stereotypes of POC.
COPS consistently avoided being pulled from air because of a pathetic introduction that absolved it of the horrors it would display for millions to see: “All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law,”.
COPS displayed the great power imbalance between law enforcement and regular citizens, and for a uncharacteristically wide audience. A 4-star audience review written on Google for the show was published a week ago from writing this. It reads as follows:
“Fantastic show! Loved it for years until these dumba** George Floyd protestors came & got it cancelled. Hopefully after the situation calms down they will bring it back. It was interesting, intriguing, suspenseful, & never repetitive. Every episode was better & more unique than the last. This show was special in its own way, different from any other cop show, different from any sort of show. This show had nothing to do with police brutality. These heroes were putting thugs in prison. They did not kill anyone. They just charged them or put them in prison, where they were supposed to be. These cops were just doing their job, not breaking police order/committing police brutality. These heroes will forever be remembered even as more & more times passes after the show’s cancellation, & so will the show itself. Rest in peace, Cops. You will be missed,” (6).
I will not be missing COPS.