Cops: Realism, but Racism too?

Jack Mileszko

“Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?” This line is from a catchy theme song for the first true reality show that premiered on FOX network in 1989 and has run for thirty years straight: Cops. It remained on FOX for twenty-five years and after it being cancelled it was quickly picked up by Spike Network. John Langley, the show’s producer, came up with the idea during a live drug raid that he was filming for a  documentary (Cocaine Blues) in 1983. The show was a hard sell to the network. At the time, no one had ever heard of a TV show with “no actors, no script, and no host.” FOX network executives  scratched their head, but decided to give it a chance. Little did they know, people would be immediately hooked on Cops.

So, what is it about this show that captures the attention of so many? To date, Cops is one of the longest-running television shows in the United States. For its first ten years, Cops ranked #1 and #2 in viewer ratings among 18-49 year olds, continuing on to be the longest running show on the FOX network and is currently in it’s 31st season. Let’s face it, everyone loves a good cop show. The less staged, the better. Take for example, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, and Law and Order, these shows were big hits and tried to be realistic, but they were ultimately “fake.”  In Bambi Haggins’ essay, Homicide: Realism, she notes that a show like Homicide did little to please the “audience’s anxieties; rather, it brings a messy and unsettling slice of American urban life to network television.”  Cops shows these exact situations first hand and I think people gravitate toward seeing it.  This is “RealFeel,” as Haggins puts it. There is nothing glamorous about the life of a cop.

Cops is in your face action –  high speed car chases, foot chases, drug busts, and domestic situations – what’s better than that? All of it real. Cops does not pay anyone to be on the show. Both cops and suspects depicted on the show sign consent forms to be on television. No money is involved, so there is no incentive to act differently. Cops’ producer, Langley, says it takes about 400 hours of footage for 22 minutes of an episode! Each episode has a cameraman and a sound man.

crime scene do not cross signage
Photo by kat wilcox on

The cameraman uses a single camera, while the sound man uses a boom mic. Again, as noted by Jeremy Butler’s essay on Madmen: Visual Style, this single-camera filming makes everything more dramatic and can capture better audio.

Although Cops depicts real police interactions with suspects, it still is an edited program. These episodes are told and filmed strictly from the point of view of the cop in pursuit of the suspect.  At times, I find myself wondering if anything has been cut out of these clips? You can’t help feeling that way these days – just watch the news. Many Cops episodes show black suspects  in the worst possible scenario – in a robbery, crack house, etc. One episode shows a black man who has been seen roughing up his dog. When questioned by the cop, he denies it. He says he was trying to give the dog a bath. Now, do I think he was roughing up the dog? Yes, I do, especially considering the way the dog is cowering in the background. However, it is the next set of events that bother me. The man is tasered when he resists handcuffs and they rough the suspect up…a bit excessive if you ask me.

The issue of racism is woven throughout each of these episodes.  The question becomes does Cops always portray blacks in a bad light? Is there a misrepresentation of blacks (especially males) in “reality” crime shows?  Tim Stelloh makes note in “Bad Boys” that civil rights activists and criminologists have called Cops a “racist and classist depiction of the country, one in which crime is a relentless threat and officers are often in pitched battles against the poor black and brown perpetrators of that crime.” Along the same line, “Are Reality TV Crime Shows Continuing to Perpetuate Crime Myths?” by E. Monk-Turner, H. Martinez, J. Holbrook, and N. Harvey,

analyzes Cops based off of eight hours of program watching shows police officers as white males and perpetrators were mostly like black males. “When African-American characters were shown, they were portrayed as offenders 93% of the time.  Most of the characters were white…appearing as a police officer 67% of the time.” When examining the types of crimes, black males were seen involved in the more violent crimes (robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, car theft and arson) vs white males seen involved in less serious crimes (public drinking, drag racing, etc.). This leads us to understand how viewers of this “critically acclaimed show” Cops perceive “reality” – police officers as mainly white and black men the perpetrators of violent crimes.  The fabrication continues.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s