Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

The Dark Side of COPS

“Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you?” is one of the most recognizable theme songs in television history. “COPS,” the longest running prime time TV show in the United States, has aired 32 seasons (1,084 episodes), racked in over 500 million dollars in profits, and gained a fan base of upwards of 8 million individuals.

Episodes are 30 minutes long and jam-packed with drug busts, high-speed chases, and shootouts. The show has branded itself as the original reality TV: giving viewers a raw, unedited look into the daily lives of America’s heroes. While it is no mystery why this high intensity, supposedly realistic, show draws viewers in, the concept behind it is fundamentally deceptive and abhorrent. 

It is important to consider the climate in which “COPS” originally aired: 1989— the peak of the “War on Drugs.” Less than three years before the pilot episode, a massive piece of legislation called the “Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986” was passed into law by Congress. This legislation introduced mandatory minimums, added 1.7 billion dollars in funds to the “War on Drugs,” enacted different sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine, and shifted federal supervised release programs from rehabilitative to punitive. 

All this to be said, massive changes were taking place in regards to the relationship between law enforcement and drug crimes. In order for this legislation to take hold and the government to gain the support of the people, they needed to paint a clear picture—law enforcement officers are the good guys, drug users are thugs (or as the song suggests, the “bad boys”). It is therefore not a surprise that in this environment, a show like “COPS” not only was created, but thrived.

While the officers and victims are real, they are both portrayed in a way that is not. While 30-40% of the arrests aired on the show are drug-related, the actual rate of drug related arrests is less than a third of that. Additionally, even though drug-related arrests are decreasing in the US, in every season of “COPS,” these types of crimes make up the highest percentage of overall arrests shown. Finally, a Black or African American suspect is 17 times more likely to be arrested before the first commercial break than a white suspect. Both the types of crimes and the appearances of those committing them are exploited in a way that reinforces stereotypes viewers may have.

When being filmed, the police departments do not get paid. However, they certainly do reap rewards. Departments have access to all the footage taken by the camera crews and can choose what is and is not televised. As a result, departments often choose clips that make them look the most valiant and reinforce their hero status. While the officers are placed on a pedestal, the men and women being arrested are diminished to less than human.

In order to attract viewers and maintain the desired good vs. bad imagery, the arrests are graphic, brutal, and demoralizing. This imagery feeds into and solidifies viewers darkest prejudices. This is evident by not only the popularity of the show, but also viral “COPS” compilations and the titles they are given. Some of these compilations have over 7 million views and are given titles such as “Dumbest Criminals,” “Toughest Takedowns,” or even “COPS vs. Criminals and Thugs.” While it is already abhorrent to gain ratings by playing into the malice of so many American viewers, the deception of this show runs much deeper.

Up until now, no real analysis or intensive studies have ever been done on “COPS.” Dan Taberski, a film director, and producer, changed all that in April of 2019 when he launched his podcast, “Running from COPS.” To put it mildly, he and his team have uncovered some pretty condemning evidence. The producers of “COPS” have long said that they get consent from everyone (victims and officers alike) to be shown on television. However, Taberski interviewed11 individuals who were arrested on the show, completely identifiable, and “of the 11 suspects we interviewed, all but one said they either did not give their legal consent to appear on the show, were too inebriated to consent knowingly or were coerced into signing — with the police and producers, troublingly, working together to get those signatures.” Taberski goes on to say that, “A man in Tampa says he was threatened with a trumped-up charge of felony trespassing if he did not sign the release. A woman in Missouri filed a lawsuit after she was repeatedly harassed by producers… after she refused to sign. A woman in Gwinnett County, Ga., claims she was denied bail bond until she signed.” This is incredibly disturbing and ironically, unlawful. For officers to exert their power over men and women, who may be under the influence of a substance of some sort and are in an incredibly vulnerable state, and coerce them into humiliating themselves on national television for the benefit of the police department and show’s producers is disgusting. It is shocking that a show rooted in deception yet portrayed as reality has been able to exploit and humiliate victims at their lowest for generations. This is thirty years overdue, but it is time to get “COPS” off prime time.

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