“Having no script to follow and no ponderous narration … diluting its drama, ‘Cops’ delivers ‘real life’ TV that is as straightforward as a nightstick to the kidneys,” the Globe review said.
Those reviewers were right that audiences would love the formula. “Cops” would go on to run for more than 30 years, enticing loyal viewers with tense scenes of foot chases, prostitution busts and drug-house raids.
But as its popularity rose, social and criminal justice advocates charged that the very elements fans loved — namely raw footage of action-packed arrests — glorified officers, normalized questionable police tactics and reinforced racial stereotypes.
On Tuesday, “Cops,” which was scheduled to premiere its 33rd season this month, came to an unceremonious end after it was canceled amid widespread protests against racism and police brutality sparked by George Floyd’s death. Floyd, a black man, died last month in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while he was handcuffed on the ground.
“Cops is not on the Paramount Network and we don’t have any current or future plans for it to return,” a spokesperson for the show’s current network said in a statement. The Paramount Network, formerly Spike TV and owned by ViacomCBS, picked up “Cops” in 2013 following its cancellation at Fox.
Tuesday’s announcement was widely praised by critics of the show and comes after episodes stopped airing on Paramount earlier this month. Similar shows such as A&E’s “Live PD,” which follows police in real time, and “Body Cam” on Discovery’s ID channel also had episodes pulled by their respective networks in recent days, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
“Cops” was the brainchild of John Langley and Malcolm Barbour, who both wanted to create a documentary-style show shot from the perspective of police, the Wall Street Journal’s John Jurgensen reported in 2012. Though the idea initially failed to garner much interest, it led Langley and Barbour to work with Geraldo Rivera, now a Fox News correspondent, to produce television exposés on sensational subjects ranging from Satanism to drug use, according to the Journal. One broadcast, titled “American Vice: The Doping of a Nation,” featured live footage of busts, The Washington Post reported at the time.
The pair held onto the concept for their show and in 1988, they pitched it to a young Fox executive named Stephen Chao. As Jurgensen wrote, Chao had helped launch “America’s Most Wanted” and “was hunting for other fresh concepts that could be made on the cheap.”
In a 2018 interview with the Marshall Project, Chao recalled doubting Langley’s pitch that he could produce a weekly program based on the simple premise of following police officers around on the job.
“My mind was whirling. I was like, ‘How can you possibly deliver such quality every week, with so much action?’ ” Chao said. “He shrugged his shoulders. He said, ‘I’m the pizza man. I can deliver every week.’ It was such a stupid thing to say. I laughed, of course. None of us knew it was possible.”
By 1989, millions of people around the country were listening to the telltale opening strains of “Bad Boys,” a song by the reggae band Inner Circle, as dramatic montages of police officers chasing and tackling suspects flashed across the screen.
While early media coverage of the show’s first few episodes, which documented a week in the lives of police officers in Broward County, Fla., were mostly positive, some were quick to raise concerns.
“The dominant image is hammered home again and again: the overwhelmingly white troops of police are the good guys; the bad guys are overwhelmingly black,” the New York Times wrote in 1989. “Little is said about the ultimate sources of the drugs, and nothing is mentioned about Florida’s periodic scandals in which the police themselves are found to be trafficking in drugs.”
One Los Angeles Times review noted that “the camera assumes the disgusting role of hanging judge by prematurely filling the screen with the faces of numerous suspects swept up in drug busts, some of whom may turn out to be innocent or may even go uncharged, for all we know.”
Soon, lawsuits targeting the show and the police departments it worked with started piling up, prompting producers to change tactics and allow police to have a say in what footage made the final cut, the Journal reported.
Still, “Cops” remained a huge draw for Fox in the ’90s. With more than 8 million viewers an episode, the show often topped the list of most-watched reality TV programs during those years, according to the Marshall Project.
As the popularity of the series increased, so did the criticism.
In 2004, a paper examining episodes was published in the peer-reviewed Western Journal of Communication, and researchers observed that “Cops” disproportionately showed people of color as perpetrators of serious crimes.
Programs like “Cops,” serve to “justify controversial police practices” and “implicitly justifies the practice of racial profiling,” the researchers wrote.
“In that many viewers experience and understand law enforcement and crime through these reality TV programs, these shows teach audiences to view certain police practices as legitimate and certain social groups as deviant,” the paper said.
The show hit another snag in 2013 when Color of Change, a civil rights group, launched a campaign urging Fox to drop the show, which the network ultimately did later that year. At the time, “Cops” had been on Fox for 25 seasons.
But the victory was short-lived. The program was soon picked up by Spike TV, now the Paramount Network, where it continued to draw viewers even as additional reports emerged in recent years raising concerns about the show’s potential to further inflame racial tensions and cause harm to marginalized communities.
A podcast released in 2019 called “Headlong: Running from COPS” delved into the controversies surrounding the show’s content and highlighted questionable interactions between officers and suspects. In one 2004 episode of “Cops” mentioned on the podcast, an officer in Wichita was seen using his flashlight to pry open the mouth of a black man and leaving it inside while another cop searched the man for drugs.
“What we found is that ‘Cops’ is edited far more problematically than it lets on, that it consistently presents excessive force as good policing and that its structural reinforcement of racial stereotypes about criminality raises questions about the ethics of continuing to let the show remain on the air,” the podcast’s host, Dan Taberski, wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. “Above all, the questionable legality of several actions taken by ‘Cops’ producers and their Police Department partners should lead every American state and city to assess whether they should allow reality shows about the police to film in their jurisdictions.”
Many cheered Paramount’s decision to cancel the show Tuesday.
“Crime TV plays a significant role in advancing distorted representations of crime, justice, race & gender within culture & #Cops led the way, pushing troubling implications for generations of viewers,” Arisha Michelle Hatch, vice president and chief of campaigns at Color of Change, said on Twitter.
Others saw the show’s cancellation as a sign of changing times and demanded that similar programs also be axed. A number of people zeroed in on A&E’s “Live PD,” citing reports this week that revealed the show had been filming when a black man in Austin was arrested last year and later died in police custody after telling officers he couldn’t breathe.
“It is exploitative of those unwillingly filmed and broadcast, and it contributes to the glorification of overly aggressive and violent police tactics,” Buffy Wicks, a Democrat who serves in the California State Assembly, tweeted. “Needs to end.”