Good cops, bad cops, whatcha gonna do?

Author:Lawson, Robert A.
  1. Introduction

    The American television show Cops debuted on Sunday, March 11, 1989, on the Fox network and has become one of the longest-running series in television history, now in its twenty-eighth season on the Spike TV network. Cops is filmed in cinema verite style as an unnarrated, unscripted, reality television show in which film crews follow law enforcement officers through their daily duties. Its opening theme song, "Bad Boys" by the reggae band Inner Circle, has achieved iconic pop culture status. Each twenty-two-minute episode features three separate vignettes, each typically an interaction between the police and a person suspected of a crime. (1)

    The show is repeated in syndication on numerous other networks, and few Americans have never seen the show. To give some idea of its continuing popularity, consider that the January 28, 2014, episode on Spike TV was ranked fifth out of twenty-six shows airing that evening--ranking higher than offerings on both ABC and NBC. (2)

    The scenes shown in Cops undoubtedly contribute to many people's perceptions of police officers and the nature of modern police work. The portrayals featured on the show are clearly designed to be sympathetic toward the police, and the show's opening voiceover says solemnly that Cops is "filmed on location with the men and women of law enforcement."

    Doyle (2003) provides an authoritative narrative of how the show works based on thirty episodes. He describes Cops as "reality fiction" with heavily edited scenes (fifty to one hundred hours of filming are required to get one hour of usable footage). The police officers are made human by the opening identification tags and scenes of police camaraderie; suspects are always nameless and even blurred out if they have refused to sign the show's waiver. To maintain viewer interest, the incidence of violence on the show is also much higher than in real life (Oliver 1994). Most importantly, Doyle (2003) documents the cozy relationship between the police and the show. For instance, the show has been known to let police departments review tapes and erase any unwanted footage. Police mistakes, such as raids on the wrong homes, are never aired.

    In Wilson v. Layne (1998), the Supreme Court authorized the practice of allowing news crews to observe and record the execution of warrants. Still, legal scholars have criticized the practice of media ride-alongs. Cronan (1999) argues that ride-alongs may violate the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. Markin (2004, p. 60) claims that ride-alongs "transform the press from government watchdog to government lapdog."

    Police officers are entrusted to protect and serve the public, but ample evidence shows that the police can also violate that trust and become criminals themselves. Running protection rackets, stealing drugs and money from suspects, falsifying evidence and testimony to secure convictions, using excessive force (including unjustified shootings), and instigating sexual and racial harassment are among the many well-known ways that police officer behavior goes awry. Hardly a day goes by without a new accusation of police misconduct, and the ensuing public debate about police behavior can even spill into the streets as people protest what they perceive as rampant police abuse. For example, tens of thousands of people protested around the country in December 2014 after a series of questionable deaths at the hands of police (Roberts and Short 2014).

    While Cops has never shown a police officer committing a crime of the type listed above, the police it does show are not always protecting people's rights. It is possible for a law itself to violate people's rights. The law once required African Americans to sit in the backs of public busses, and while the police who enforced that law were not guilty of any crime, they most certainly did violate the rights of the affected African Americans. Thus, even when a police officer upholds the law, he or she can still violate a person's rights if the law itself is unjust.

    Can Cops shed light on the frequency of rights violations of this type? Ariel, Farrar, and Sutherland (2015) have found evidence that the use of body cameras by police can reduce both the use of force by police officers and the frequency of citizens' complaints about the use of excessive force. If body cameras can have this effect, surely an entire independent film crew would be even more effective. This assumption is at odds with Oliver's (1994) finding that Cops portrays more police violence than occurs real life. It appears that whatever ameliorative effects cameras may have in general are more than made up for by the editor's need to show violence to beef up ratings and viewer interest.

    Another issue is that plainclothes detectives typically not shown on Cops conduct the bulk of real-life investigations for assaults, burglaries, rapes, murders, and other serious violent and property crimes, so we may miss these important police activities on the show. Simple traffic stops are also rarely part of the show. It is hard to say if the types of crimes seen on the show are representative of real-life police work.

    To summarize, there are several potential selection biases that suggest the show is unrepresentative of actual police work. (1) Police may behave differently on camera than off. (2) The officers on the show are selected from the ranks of the most educated and well spoken, and the show producers and police departments are in tacit, if not overt, collusion to show police work in a positive light. (3) The show's editors select...

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