The last time I watched Cops was when I was 15 years old, flipping through basic cable in my parent’s basement on a Saturday night and ultimately settling on Cops because, well, why not? It was loud and intense and dramatic and mind-numbing. There was no barrier of entry to the show; no plot I needed to follow, no character backstories I needed to understand. There were the cops and there were the bad guys. Its simplicity was comforting.
But Cops is not simple. Cops is presented as a documentary on policing in America, a topic that could not be more complex and controversial, and has been broadcasting that work on TV for over 30 years now, with new episodes still airing weekly and usually drawing over a million viewers. It’s actually the longest-running reality show of all time, and since it’s in syndication, it’s sometimes on 70 times in one week. It’s been on so long that it’s become culturally ubiquitous, something a then-teenager like myself can turn on and zone out in front of.
“When you talk about things in the culture, you talk about things that are new and you talk about things that are good,” former television producer Dan Taberski told me recently over the phone. “And everything else just kind of lives on.”
Taberski’s resume includes The Daily Show and the Andrew W.K.-hosted Cartoon Network program Destroy Build Destroy, and he pivoted to podcasting a few years back. In each season of his audio documentary series, Headlong, he “explores the lives of overlooked people, moments, and events in our culture,” to quote from his website. His latest podcast, Running From Cops, is an investigation of Cops, a show Taberski has always watched “with two minds.”
“On the one hand, I’ve always found it really captivating,” he said. “Like it or not, Cops is one of the only shows that points cameras to these communities that you really don’t see a lot of on television. And so I always found that really compelling.”
“On the other hand, I’ve always wondered: how are they doing this? Why are they allowed to do this? How much control do the police have over this? How much control do the suspects have when they’re being filmed on this television show? How much leeway do the producers give the police in terms of crafting their own message?”
Taberski and his team spent 18 months searching for the answers to those questions. What they found, and present in the six episodes of Running From Cops, is utterly mind-blowing. The most important discovery was that Cops gives police departments editorial control of the show. In other words, the police are able to say yes or no to rough cuts of what the show filmed, and therefore dictate how they want to be perceived by Cops’ massive viewership.
In addition to interviewing the creators of Cops, talking to suspects who had been on the show, speaking with police officers who were on the show, and consulting a number of criminal justice experts about the way Cops portrays policing on the show, Taberski and his colleagues watched 846 episodes of Cops. They collected over 68,000 data points in order to build statistics about the minutiae of the show, and their findings revealed a number of ways in which police use their collaboration with Cops to send a message. Cops frontloads crimes committed by people of color (a black suspect is 17 percent more likely to be arrested before the first commercial break than a white suspect), exaggerates traffic stop arrest rates (in real life it’s 2 percent; on the show it’s 92 percent), and normalizes dangerous, potentially violent interactions (24 percent of all Cops segments include a chase scene).
An in-depth study of the show had literally never been done before, and no substantial research on its framing had been attempted since shortly after it aired in the early ’90s.All of the statistics and revelations in Running From Cops spur from Taberski and his team’s own research. For instance, 35 percent of the arrests on Cops are drug-related, which is more than three times the real life stats. A handful of disturbing interviews illustrate how Cops both figuratively and literally helped the drug war. In one, John Bunnell, a former sheriff who was on the show in the late ‘80s (during the height of the war on drugs), admits that Cops producers used to carry guns when they were filming. “It was good, thank god they did,” he tells Taberski. “They were kind of our sworn-in special deputies.”
Even though drug arrests began to finally decline in 2006, Taberski says that drug arrests on Cops have continued to go up. These conflations between Cops crime and real-world crime is a pattern in Taberski’s research. “The fact that 85 percent of segments on the show end in arrest was shocking enough,” he said. “But what I found more shocking was the fact that they’re getting better at it over time. So in season two of the show, 61 percent of the segments end in arrest. In season 30 of the show, which was last year, 95 percent of the segments end in arrest.”
Beyond depicting inaccurate crime rates, the police on Cops are often shown using police tactics that are either condemned by the Department of Justice, or considered careless, dangerous, and/or borderline illegal by some of the experts Taberski interviews. There’s one Cops segment you hear audio from, in which an officer shoves a flashlight deep into a citizen’s mouth to get him to spit out suspected drugs before the suspect has even been put under arrest. In another, an unarmed man is tased in a foot chase, and then sniffed out by a drug dog that drags him out of a bush and bloodies his neck. In the corresponding podcast episode, the fourth in the series, Dr. Tyrone Powers — a former state trooper, FBI agent, and professor of homeland security and criminal justice — uses words like “abhorrent” and “unconstitutional” to describe the policing in those scenes.
“And all those things are being presented as good policing,” Taberski said. “All those things are being presented as things that [are] okay for the police to do. After 30 years of that, it makes you wonder how regular Americans are coming to understand, or misunderstand, what it is that police can do. I don’t think you can overstate the impact that a show like Cops has had on the way we look at that.”
“As somebody who’s worked in television, I understand how reality shows get made ... I thought there would be a different standard when you’re dealing with something as important as police.”
Running From Cops includes some truly terrifying anecdotes about the way Cops obtains “consent” from the suspects on the show, which they’re legally required to have. You hear how these suspects have had their lives irreparably affected from being seen on Cops, and how reruns of the show make sure that they’re never able to live it down. (In one segment, a suspect who was arrested on the show and then proven innocent in her court appearance, felt she had to move out of her hometown because of the backlash she received from being seen on the episode.) You hear infuriating interviews with police officers who either defend the way they did their job on the show, or emphatically denounce their actions and explain how they were pressured into acting a certain way for the cameras.
However, the most appalling finding is laid out during the final episode, in which Taberski and his team get their hands on the raw footage from one segment of Cops — a seven-minute, appearingly run-of-the-mill cocaine bust on the show that was trimmed down from 97 minutes. Taberski’s background in reality television is particularly relevant for this monumental moment, as he stresses that no reality TV producer ever wants you to see the raw footage.
In the version that aired, an officer rolls up to two kids hanging out in a church parking lot after hours. He searches their car and immediately finds a white powdery substance, which comes back positive for cocaine in a swift roadside drug test. The kids are arrested and the segment ends. In the full version that Taberski acquired, it took the officer 14 minutes to “find” the powdery substance on the car floor. At first, he visibly ignores that substance before eventually choosing to double-back and test it. In the aired version the test comes back positive for cocaine right away, but in the unedited version the officer tests the substance three times before it comes back positive. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to hear what happens in between those three tests, but Taberski said that what he saw permanently changed his view of the show.
“It shocked me to the point that I and my producers spent days looking at this footage and trying to find an explanation for it that wasn’t egregious, for why Cops would edit this footage this way. And why the police officer would potentially behave in the way that he looks like he’s behaving.”
The dominant belief of contemporary cultural criticism is that pop culture exerts a gravitational pull on the hearts and minds of the people who consume it. While this is literally always up for debate, it’s not a stretch to suggest that 30 years of broadcasting biased, corrupt police practices has had immense implications for both the suspects and the viewers. Taberski argues that Cops’ cultural pervasiveness — as well as the soaring popularity of its modern counterpart, Live PD, which he dedicates an entire episode to exploring — have shaped the way everyday Americans have understood policing throughout the last three decades. In a clever bit of storytelling, he structures the show in a way that’s intentionally open-minded, so that anyone, whether you love or hate the show Cops, and regardless of your opinions on police, can understand the force of this program.
“Call me an idiot, I don’t know,” he said. “But as somebody who’s worked in television, I understand how reality shows get made. I understand that it’s often trumped up drama and I understand how that works. And I understand that the people involved in those shows, they understand that’s what it’s going to be too. I thought there would be a different standard when you’re dealing with something as important as police.”