Investigating the harsh realities of ‘Cops’

Courtesy of Dan Taberski/Headlong

Early on in the documentary podcastRunning From Cops,” which debuted in April, the show cuts to audio from a YouTube clip of two young boys playing Cops. Not cops and robbers, but bad-boys-bad-boys-whatcha-gonna-do Cops.

“Get down on the ground, now!” one boy bellows at his playmate in a disconcertingly accurate authoritarian tone. “Why were you runnin’ tonight? On your knees! Hey! Stop resisting!”

 The scene shows how deeply the TV show Cops is embedded in American culture. Now in its 32nd season, the show is the longest running and, depending on your definition, the oldest reality show ever to air. Between new episodes and widespread syndication, cable viewers can watch from 16 to 20 episodes most days.  

“I grew up with TV as background noise,” Dan Taberski, the creator of “Running from Cops,” says. “And Cops is perfect for that. It’s on a million times a day, and it’s captivating. So much of reality TV is obviously fake reality—duck hunters or Honey Boo Boos, these joke versions of the working class. I felt like with Cops I was getting access to seeing a world that wasn’t captured any other way.” At the same time, Taberski, who has worked in television for decades, asked himself about the mechanics of the show: How do they get police departments to let them ride along? How do they get all those hapless suspects to sign releases? How, in short, are they allowed to do this?

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Answering that question became the focus of the third season of “Headlong,” Taberski’s podcast series with First Look Media and Pineapple Street Media. Previous seasons have reexamined the legacy of fitness guru Richard Simmons and the Y2K panic, respectively. The topics seem disparate, but Taberski says there is a through-line. “The series is really about doing deep exploration of things in the culture that I think people have been getting wrong,” he says. 

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Taberski and his team visited a few cities and counties where Cops had filmed, to examine each place more closely and to follow up with people who had been featured in episodes. “We might have a first name and a location where it happened, a gas station. We’d call the gas station and say, ‘Hey, do you remember who this was?’” Taberski says. “We were printing out screen-grabs and comparing them to mug shots from the same time period.”

All told, they collected 846 episodes, composed of 2,539 segments, representing each of the 30 seasons. They estimate that their sample set comprises about 82 percent of the episodes ever aired.

Of particular interest to Taberski was Cops producers’ oft-repeated claim that everyone who appears on the show has signed a release consenting to their inclusion. “They say that people sign happily, that they want to be famous, even if it’s ‘Cops’-famous,” Taberski says. “I just didn’t believe it. But it’s the kind of thing that you can’t prove them wrong unless you find the people.”

The “Running From Cops” team did find the people—10 of them, at least—of whom only one said they had willingly signed a release. The other nine either denied ever signing anything, said they’d been coerced, or said they were too intoxicated at the time for anything they signed to carry legal weight. The podcast stops short of calling the Cops producers liars over their claim that everyone participates willingly, but it’s hard to conclude otherwise.

As work on the series progressed, the team felt that nothing would reveal the distorting effect of Cops more convincingly than a quantitative analysis. So they collected as many of the 1,000-plus episodes of the show as they could find. The last eleven seasons of Cops can be found on Amazon, and the team found much of the preceding 18 seasons on torrent sites. All told, they collected 846 episodes, composed of 2,539 segments, representing each of the 30 seasons. They estimate that their sample set comprises about 82 percent of the episodes ever aired.

Their analysis confirms the impression anyone who’s watched a handful of episodes has likely had: Cops emphasizes the lurid, the violent, and the action-packed. Compared to what we know about crime in the US from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting database, the show over-represents violent crime by nearly a factor of four, drug crimes by nearly a factor of three, and prostitution by nearly a factor of 10. In recent years, fully one third of all encounters on the show feature cops chasing suspects.

There’s reason to believe that the producers of Cops are fully aware and deliberate about the aggregate picture the show creates. Early episodes emphasized African American suspects out of all proportion to reality; in the wake of a lawsuit, the show has scrupulously maintained a racial ratio of suspects that tracks available real-world crime numbers.

If “Cops depicts a frightening world overrun with drug use and violent crime, it also shows the police as a tireless and effective bulwark against the chaos, preserving safety and maintaining order by putting people in custody. Out of all the encounters surveyed by Taberski and team, 84.4 ended in arrest.

The ideology that Cops helps to reinforce has deep roots in the history of television’s fascination with police. The podcast cites Alyssa Rosenberg’s excellent five-part 2016 series for The Washington Post exploring this history, which helps trace the convergence of interests between entertainment producers who need police cooperation to achieve a sense of authenticity, and those police departments, who see collaboration on those shows as a chance to control how they’re depicted. That dynamic is in full effect with Cops: Taberski found a legal agreement the show enters into with police departments which stipulates that “copies of each film segment will be provided to the department in no less than twenty working days prior to segment onlining… PD has ten days to make any changes they deem necessary to the segments before they go public.” 

“Police departments want to do the show because they want to show their bosses, politicians, that they are working their asses off,” Taberski says. “That it’s a violent, scary world, and they are the only thing between regular people and how they portray the suspects on the show. It’s advantageous for them to seem under siege. It helps their public image, and it’s also advantageous in terms of their budgets. These are bureaucracies, and they need to prove their worth, and this is part of it.”

Whether because it suits the interest of police departments or reality TV producers, Cops also serves to normalize bad police work: escalatory, dangerous, degrading, unconstitutional police work. In one segment, an Arizona officer fires a Taser while chasing a man suspected of loitering. You wouldn’t know it from Cops, but tasing a civilian for no reason other than that you’re tired of running after them is against both the officer’s departmental policy and the law.

“Running From Cops” outlines a dynamic of mutual influence, in which reality television distorts  police-work even as the police bend the show to suit their own agenda. That’s accurate, but there’s also another read, articulated on the podcast by Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale, in which the show presents a very accurate portrayal of American policing. “In a way,” Vitale says, Cops is telling us a lot about what policing really is. Policing really is about a constant, low-level harassment and arresting of poor people on frivolous charges.”

There are some indications that people might be starting to reconsider their relationship to the show. “Running From Cops” documents a successful effort to kick the show out of Spokane, Washington, where it has filmed for years. Since the podcast debuted, Kalamazoo and Ingham County, both in Michigan, have cancelled plans to have cameras follow their police around.

Taberski doesn’t want to tell anyone what to do, he says, but he does want to encourage everyone to think critically about a genre that has become deeply embedded in our consciousness. “There’s got to be a better way to look at policing,” he says. “What would be better would be to loudly and forcefully acknowledge that the police work for the people, and police legitimacy rests on the people believing they’re doing a good job in our name. I don’t see a scenario where being on a fucking entertainment show is part of that picture.”

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Nick Pinto is a journalist living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Village Voice, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @macfathom.