Cops became a reliable recruiting tool for police departments across America. It also became a way for disgraced units to rehab their reputation on camera. As a Vox documentary points out, the Los Angeles Police Department finally agreed to give the show access in 1994, two years after riots erupted over the brutal beating of Rodney King. In 2014, after years of rebuffing outreach from Cops producers, the Omaha Police Department in Nebraska also relented, in part to help bolster public faith after an excessive-force incident that had led to the termination of six police officers. (The partnership later became infamous when an officer accidentally shot and killed a sound technician from the show during a robbery.) In 2015, after video emerged of police officers in Salinas, California, beating a man who appeared to be incapacitated, Cops was similarly invited to town to restore the local law-enforcement brand.
In its early seasons, Cops did feel more real, for better and worse. In the pilot, officers show their biases, dragging cuffed black suspects down the street while later letting white ones go with a warning. “If your license is good, I’ll give you a little slap on the wrist, tell you to be on your way,” Deputy Wurms tells one guy who’s been stopped while buying drugs. “I’m just trying to get these white boys to stop coming in here,” he explains to the camera. They “don’t belong here.” Another episode emphasized how wrenching police work can be, showing a female officer crying as she left a 2-year-old with Child Protective Services, in less than favorable conditions. But Running From Cops computes some of the ways in which the series tweaked itself to make for grabbier entertainment. Two percent of traffic stops in the real world, Taberski explains, end in arrest. On the show, it’s 92 percent. Cops portrays almost four times as much violent crime as occurs in reality, three times as much drug crime, and 10 times as much prostitution. In later seasons, producers started editing clips together into “best of” compilations with grabby names, such as a “Ho Ho Ho” series focusing on sex workers arrested over the holidays. Recent seasons of Cops have seemed even less like documentary than straight sideshow, served up online for YouTube clicks under questionable titles such as “Grandma, Chicken, and Meth.”
But what seems to have damned the show most of all, and facilitated its overdue end, is actual documentary video—captured not by professionals, but by bystanders with cellphones. If Cops is a simulacrum of American police work, polished and cut and spliced into a hollow replica, the videos of police officers killing Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Keith Lamont Scott, Danny Ray Thomas, Eric Garner, George Floyd, and too, too many others are indubitably real. And in recent weeks, videos depicting officers abusing their power—in response to largely peaceful protests across the country—have flooded the internet. No producers have edited the footage showing officers in Buffalo, New York, pushing 75-year-old Martin Gugino onto the ground with such force that they damaged his brain. No police chief has approved the videos of NYPD cruisers hurtling into crowds, sending protesters literally flying. The era of valorized cops on TV is over.
Over the past few days, while I watched old Cops episodes on YouTube, I kept getting the same ads over and over. Some were for Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, but others were for the Baltimore Police Department, apparently still hoping to capitalize on Cops as a recruiting tool. “Be a part of the greatest comeback story in America,” the spots urged. It’s hard not to think that kind of recovery, this time, will demand much more than television can offer.
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