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How ‘Cops’ shaped public opinion about police and people of color over the last 30 years

COPS actuality TV present has been cancelled.

Courtesy Paramount Network

When a writers’ strike paralyzed the tv trade within the late 1980s, networks had been compelled to seek out new, various applications to fill its air. 

That’s how “Cops” discovered a house on Fox Television. The low funds program, which had no union writers, was a welcome resolution — and it ran for 32 seasons. That is till earlier this week. 

Now owned by ViacomCBS, “Cops” was canceled within the wake of of protests towards police brutality and the loss of life of George Floyd by the hands of a white police officer.

The present has lengthy been criticized for its depiction of police interactions with prison suspects, however excessive rankings saved the present working and even impressed different networks to create actuality TV exhibits that includes cops. A&E’s “Live P.D.,” one of many highest-rated exhibits on cable, has also been canceled. 

“As an early reality program, it came across to people as raw documentary,” mentioned Jack Bratich, affiliate professor of journalism and media research at Rutgers University. “Nowadays audiences are more savvy about how reality programming is produced, edited and staged. Viewers are aware of how programs present perspectives and invite audiences to identify with those perspectives.”

The attraction of “Cops,” and different exhibits prefer it, was the concept that it was an unfiltered have a look at what police face on a regular basis whereas on the job. However, this lens was extra filtered than most audiences had been conscious of on the time of its inception and, as this system gained recognition, it started to bolster racial stereotypes concerning the Black neighborhood.

The actuality of ‘Cops’

“One of the first reality TV shows, ‘Cops’ observational style seemed to show the police as the thin blue line holding back the violence and chaos of American inner cities,” mentioned Zoe Druick, a professor at Simon Fraser University, who teaches media research and cultural concept. 

The present did not have a script or a narrator. Audiences had been thrust into the motion, watching as patrol automobiles sped towards violent incidents that had been already in progress. 

At the time of “Cops” inception, the U.S. was in the midst of its “War on Drugs,” which led to the militarization of police and better incarceration charges. 

“Their violent policing style was justified by the extreme situations they found themselves in,” Druick mentioned. “In reality, the show was highly edited, with the majority of police work dealing with the outcomes of poverty, addiction and mental illness being left on the proverbial cutting room floor.”

“Cops” filmed in additional than 140 cities over the course of its 30 years on tv. Police departments granted permission to this system to movie of their areas and had approval rights over the footage.

In many circumstances, police departments requested “Cops” to return and movie of their city or metropolis so as to help with rebranding their status and as a method to recruit new officers.

“‘Cops’ was terrific PR for police departments,” mentioned Dan Simon, professor of legislation and psychology at The University of Southern California Gould School of Law. 

Simon famous that there’s a sense of accountability that most individuals really feel when they’re being noticed. The cops knew they had been going to be filmed for the sequence, had been conscious of the norms and expectations folks have for officers of the legislation and had been working to uphold that picture.

“Some reality shows are games — participants are also contestants, creating personas for the audience as well as for other contestants,” Bratich mentioned. “In the case of ‘Cops,’ this meant creating personas of amused, beleaguered and effective police officers. They constructed images of themselves as ordinary heroes just doing their jobs on the front lines. This peek into the backstage of patrol cops eclipsed the institutional and systemic problems of policing.”

Reinforcing stereotypes

While cops had been glorified, suspects, no matter their eventual guilt, had been criminalized.

“The show drew a line between police and criminals, using the observational format to suggest that we could simply see who was good and who was bad in the situation,” Druick mentioned. “‘Cops’ therefore also implicitly suggested that courts were irrelevant. You could see with your own eyes who was guilty — the very ones police came for.”

Simon famous that research have proven that over the course of the present’s run it statistically skewed towards Black and Brown suspects, extra so than the precise charge of crime within the U.S. Often, he mentioned, these suspects had been proven intoxicated, in poor neighborhoods and in poor bodily situation. 

“You catch people at the worst moments in their lives and that reinforces the stereotypes,” Simon mentioned.

The construction of “Cops,” which did not present background or context for incidences, pushed audiences to establish with the police, Druick mentioned. Even the “Bad Boys” theme tune assisted in criminalizing the suspects even earlier than they had been on digicam.

“Over the years, [‘Cops’] most likely contributed to the dehumanization of poor, desperate, drug-addicted African Americans and the justification of harsh, militarized policing,” she mentioned.

ViacomCBS and A&E, which is owned by Hearst Communications and Disney Media Networks, did not instantly reply to a request for remark.

The illustration of suspects on actuality police exhibits is a part of the rationale that protesters have referred to as for his or her cancellation through the years. Those calls had been finally answered within the wake of nationwide rallies towards police brutality and the bias towards folks of coloration.

“By focusing on ordinary situations, reality TV often normalizes certain behaviors,”  Bratich mentioned. “The call to cancel ‘Cops’ was a refusal of police normalization.”

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