Policing Reality: COPS, Corporations and Control.
By Garrett Graham.
COPS (1989 – present) is the FOX network’s longest running series and one of the most popular and profitable shows on television today. It is now in its 14th season and has grossed over $500 million despite being one of the cheapest shows to produce on network television. Long before “reality TV” became a genre in its own right, COPS wrote the formula and set the bar. This choice of style and subject emerged as a calculated response to media workers organizing resistance to exploitation by media companies. Ironically, it is that very police institution glorified on COPS that has been organized labor’s most dangerous historic enemy. A careful examination of the history of policing in America and the impact of shows like COPS reveals a disturbing cycle of systemic violence and deception that poses a significant threat to democracy by normalizing police violence and the social inequalities it enforces.
“Reality television” in one of the more dubious and oxymoronic terms to enter the public lexicon in recent decades. The term implies that what we are seeing is something more “real” than normal television, but nothing could be further from the truth. “Reality television” purports to show how “real people” react in “real situations” as opposed to staged drama with paid actors. This objective may sound similar to conventions in cinema verite, direct cinema, observational cinema and video journalism. Although these other traditions try to mitigate their influence, reality television is often deliberately staged or manipulated drama with unpaid (or paid) actors without the stage names. In terms of actuality, there is no significant difference between television and reality television except that the later is much cheaper to produce. In fact, the rise of reality television has much more to do with industry reaction to the writer’s and actor’s guild strikes of recent decades than any attempt to produce more realistic television.
COPS was co-created and pitched by John Langly to FOX Network CEO Barry Diller. Ben Grossman, writing for the industry publication Broadcasting & Cable, chronicles the history of the show’s inception. “The timing was right. A writer’s guild strike was happening when they pitched this unscripted show in 1988. As they talked … an ‘accountant-looking guy’ was ‘sitting over in the corner.’ When the pitch was over, the ‘accountant’ suddenly said he wanted to see four episodes. It was News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch” (Grossman) Stephen Chao was a programming executive at the time but would later become the future President of FOX Television Stations and the USA Network partially because of the surprising success of COPS, which he helped to produce. “At the time, the network wasn’t doing particularly well … so they were a bit more desperate, I suppose, to take a chance on something.” (Grossman) The bottom line was profitability. COPS provided drama and violence at a fraction of the cost of conventional TV shows without having to deal with the politics and demands of the actors and writers striking against the television networks. Other media companies followed the FOX model in order to compete for audiences and the reality TV formula became a full-blown genre.
Although television is the focus of this paper, it is impossible to divorce a moral critique of television shows about the police from the more obvious moral critique of the police as an institution of systemic violence. “Reality television” creates enough problems on its own to warrant critical scrutiny, but when its delusions are compounded with the history of American policing, a much more serious picture is presented. In the 2004 book Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America author and researcher Kristian Williams takes an exhaustive look at the history of policing in America. The evidence of systemic violence, racism, sexism, and class oppression in America’s police culture is too vast and nuanced to be illuminated here, but the moral implications of the media being examined here does demand a brief explanation. “It is argued, in short, that the police exist to control troublesome populations, especially those that are likely to rebel. This task has little to do with crime, as most people think of it, and much to do with politics – especially the preservation of existing inequalities …The history of America’s police is not the story of democracy so much as it is the story of the prevention of democracy.” (Williams 2)
When this perspective is applied to the culture and media surrounding American police we can see a disturbing pattern. Television, whether it is based in fiction or reality, is biased towards conflict and drama. This often manifests itself as sensationalized violence. The same is true of most for-profit media, but once again because of the particular history of policing in America the routine television axiom “if it bleeds it leads” is made all the more destructive when it is revealed that “violence is an inherent part of policing. The police represent the most direct means by which the state imposes its will on the citizenry. When persuasion, indoctrination, moral pressure, and incentive measures all fail – there are the police. In the field of social control, police are specialists in violence.” (Williams 9)
When that violence is normalized by television it services that very system; persuading, indoctrinating and providing moral pressure to remind us that the police are the “good guys” and re-inscribing popular myths about their function and history. For example, the immediately recognizable theme song of COPS is “Bad Boys” performed by Inner Circle and refers to the implicit civilian antagonists of the show. Despite its pretensions of objectivity we are reminded at the beginning of every episode that what we are about to watch is the “good guys” triumphing over the “bad guys.” The complex history of police violence in America is glossed over and presented as another inevitable struggle between good and evil indistinguishable from conventional fiction.
The moral implications of television shows like COPS, World’s Wildest Police Videos (1998 – 2001), Campus PD (2009 – present) and similar reality television shows that showcase state-sanctioned violence for the sake of selling audiences to advertisers goes well beyond the exploitation and embarrassment of the individual victims in any given episode. These shows in particular can have a profoundly negative effect on a democratic society by glorifying and normalizing state violence, scapegoating oppressed communities and distorting reality in order to produce exciting television.
This vicious cycle is made even more nefarious when it is revealed that, historically, American police institutions are here to protect and serve the state and the corporations who own it at the expense of that very audience and the victims they are encouraged to fear or laugh at in between the commercial breaks. These shows are symptomatic of an undemocratic society because they disproportionately affect communities that have the least amount of say in how they are represented. This might be mitigated by the fact that the show features the disclaimer “COPS is filmed on location with the men and women of law enforcement. All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” (Barbour) and “participants” (if such a word can even be applied) sign a release form in order to allow their face to appear on the show.
However, the doctrine of informed consent is meant to apply to willing participants in an environment of open and honest communication. Being asked to sign a piece of paper while being arrested after being traumatized or abused is the antithesis of informed consent. One cannot consent while under coercion. Undoubtedly, a great number of those who signed releases were not in a position to understand what they were signing. Even if this release form isn’t signed the participant may still appear on the show with their face digitally obscured but with their ethnicity and implicit social class still visible. Their anonymity may encourage audiences to see an individual as representative of an entire class of people now that the victim has no face or name. Suspects do not even need to be convicted of a crime to be cast as a villain by an anonymous jury of millions in their homes. COPS disproportionately focuses on poorer communities and people of color for their drama while ignoring the “white-collar” crimes that are often far more destructive but make less exciting television.
In the documentary film Bowling for Columbine, which examines American gun violence and its origins, filmmaker Michael Moore interviews Dick Herlan, former producer of COPS and executive producer of World’s Wildest Police Videos. The film examines how COPS promotes fear of oppressed and impoverished communities, especially white suburbia’s hysterical fear of urban (and implicitly black) crime. Moore asks why they can’t make a TV show about the causes of crime, like poverty and inequality, instead of focusing exclusively on chasing down criminals. Herlan explains that “It’s harder to do that show. I don’t know what that show would be. Anger does well, hate does well, violence does well. Tolerance and understanding and trying to learn to be a little different than you were last year does less well.” (Moore)
Herlan is presented with the possibility that shows like COPS might be presenting a disproportionately negative image of oppressed communities, particularly poor black and Latino communities. Moore suggests that this may contribute to racist stereotypes that prevent meaningful dialogue about crime and poverty, stoking fear of ethnic minorities in the eyes of their audience. “I’m not sure that’s what we’re doing. I’m not sure that we’re demonizing black and hispanic people particularly. I don’t think that we show black and hispanic people as being criminals… [pauses] I’d like to say not more often but probably they are more often but… [pauses] I certainly don’t think we’re – we’re certainly not trying to demonize black and hispanic people.” (Moore) That may be the case, but one does not have to intentionally invoke racism to be complicit in its effects on communities that have no means to challenge how they are represented by private, for-profit media.
In fact, the producers of COPS have no qualms with enhancing their supposedly impartial footage with sound and video effects meant to make their “real-life” docu-drama look and sound more like the prime-time crime dramas they compete with for audiences. This is especially true of the high-speed chases that are a staple of the shows conflict narrative. Footage may be sped up to make the chase seem more dangerous and sound effects may be added for dramatic flair. Gunshots, barking dogs, screams, howls, police sirens and helicopter blades make conspicuous but easy audio additions to an otherwise routine arrest. It is suspicious that somehow their loud police helicopters are able to record the screeching tires and crunching steel of suspect vehicles from several hundred feet in the air. As Herlan explained, their incentive is to make exciting television, not to accurately represent reality. However, since the police departments being taped have the final say on the footage, audiences are exposed to the combined biases of profit-driven television executives and image-conscious police authorities. The image that finally appears on screen has been carefully manipulated and crafted to present an image of criminal justice that serves the police and the television network’s personal agendas.
However, some police officers do take issue with the way their occupation is presented by shows like COPS. In 2005, Chicago Police Department Deputy Director of News Affairs Patrick Camden responded to a request to tape COPS in his precinct. “Police work is not entertainment. What they do trivializes policing. We’ve never seriously even considered taping.” (Grossman) The Honolulu Police Department also declined to be taped for similar reasons. But other police officers have launched new careers as celebrity personalities because of their willingness to participate in the COPS brand of dramatized justice. John Edwin Bunnell is the former Sheriff of Multnomah County, Oregon and is best known as the charismatic host of World’s Wildest Police Videos. He first appeared in the early episodes of COPS and attained a cult following due to his over-the-top style of commentary.
His “performance” as an all-American, tough-as-nails man of the law probably gained such a following because it so closely resembles conventional representations of police heroes in popular culture. In fact, his narrations and commentary sound like they could have been taken straight from any fictional crime drama. These particular quotes have been selected to demonstrate how this former police officer enthusiastically re-inscribes popular myths about cops and criminals. “This man decided to rob a bank, now he’ll learn crime doesn’t pay!… For the criminals, cash is for taking, cars are for chasing and law is for breaking…They fought the law, and the law won…They tried to run from the police, but they couldn’t escape the law.” (Stojanovich) This irresponsible dehumanization of anonymous, un-convicted suspects is ubiquitous throughout the show. Bunnell describes the unrepresented antagonists of the show with slanderous epithets such as “maniac”, “crazed madman”, “crazed drug felon”, “out of their minds”, “low-life drug-pusher”, “renegade punk”, “bad move bandits”, “sky-high on a two day crack binge and wired to the max”. (Stojanovich) The police have final say over the footage, but the victims never get a say in how they are represented.
All of this could just be dismissed as bad writing if it weren’t for the constant reminder that Bunnell is a “real-life” police officer who knows what he’s talking about. He isn’t the host just because of his over-the-top delivery, it’s also his badge and his history that give weight to his ludicrous depiction of police work. After hosting three seasons of the show he now has a lucrative career as a TV personality and has accepted roles in movies such as Ghost World (2001) and Bad Santa (2003) and even lent his voice to the police-themed video game World’s Scariest Police Chases (2001) and the animated series Family Guy (2010) parodying his role in World’s Wildest Police Videos. Bunnell has even starred in infomercials selling weapons of police brutality directly to the public such as the Taser C2 Personal Protector commercial (2008). Despite being described as a “non-lethal deterrent”, tasers are lethal weapons that were responsible for 180 deaths in 2006 in the hands of police officers. (Parker) Fame, wealth and success are available as long as you follow the script and cooperate with the state and the corporations in their shared glorification and justification of police violence.
Industry sources estimate that COPS, the show that started it all, has pulled in more than $200 million during its syndication run, which is still going strong. Over time, network fees have grown to more than $650,000 per episode, from about $200,000. Profits keep pouring in while costs remain relatively minuscule. “We had the lowest license fee in network TV for many years and may still today for the Big Four networks,” Langley says. “But the syndication—that made us a little money, obviously. My kids got through college.” (Grossman) Indeed, many have gained financially and built careers around this morally reprehensible police state propaganda. Although some police forces refuse to cooperate, others view the COPS brand as a welcomed ally. As Grossman reveals, “Most police departments, which reserve the right to screen the video before it is aired, say the show serves as a recruiting tool. Las Vegas Metro’s Cook says seeing the COPS episodes from Vegas made him eager to transfer from his former law-enforcement job in Cook County, Ill.” (Grossman).
Police institutions and corporate enterprise both win big when they combine forces, which is what they have been doing since the very beginning of American policing. Television shows like COPS and the numerous shows it has spawned should be viewed as symptoms of an undemocratic society where the means of representation and communication are controlled by private corporations who have inherited and protected the historic wealth of slavery and white supremacy at the expense of the very communities COPS demonizes as well as its audience. The tragic irony is that the police are the very institution responsible for protecting this arrangement and as long as the cops are still on the street, COPS will still be on the air.
A critical essay by Garrett Graham.
Class: Cinema Video Verite (Spring 2012, UNT)
Instructor: Ben Levine.
Barbour, Malcolm, prod. Langley, John, prod. COPS. FOX. New York, NY: 1989 – 1994. Television.
Grossman, Ben. “Bad Boys = Big Money: Cops has no stars, no plot and no contests, and it’s a killer on TV.” Broadcasting & Cable. 31 Jul 2005. Print.
Moore, Michael, dir. Bowling for Columbine. United Artists, 2002. Film.
Parker, Waichman Alonso. “Justice Department to review TASER deaths.” Associated Press. 14 Jun 2006. Print.
Stojanovich, Paul, prod. World’s Wildest Police Videos. FOX. New York, NY: 1998–2001. Television.
Williams, Kristian. Our Enemies In Blue, Police And Power In America. South End Pr, 2004.