Since 1989, COPS has provided American families with some real drama on Saturday nights. It happens to be a reality show that is more “real” than most. But that doesn’t mean that things didn’t go awry or that the behind-the-scenes facts are any less interesting. It’s the opposite, actually; the craziness we see on our screens is exactly what goes on in front of the camera.
In the 30 years since it premiered, COPS has barely skipped a beat. When Fox canceled the show in 2013, Spike picked it up. Then, in 2018, Spike became the Paramount Network, which kept airing new episodes every Saturday. So, if you (like us) just can’t get enough of those foot chases, domestic incidents, and the overall insanity of the day-to-day law enforcement drama, then stick around. You won’t regret it.
Here’s something to ponder. When producer John Langley assigned camera crews to film “on location with the men and women of law enforcement,” for the COPS debut on Fox on March 11, 1989, The Simpsons was still eight months away from premiering, and Reagan had only been out of the White House under two months.
John Langley and Malcolm Barbour conceived the idea of COPS while working on their 1983 documentary series Cocaine Blues. In the project’s research phase, Langley went on ride-alongs to several drug busts, which is what gave him the idea for COPS. He thought of creating a no-frills chronicle of police officers’ everyday encounters. The working title at that point was Street Beat.
Langley was also inspired by the poorly-received series American Vice: The Doping of a Nation – a show hosted by Geraldo Rivera that Langley had worked on. Despite the poor outcome of that show, Langley was able to come up with this new idea. At that time, Hollywood was suffering a Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike.
Networks were in dire need of unscripted programming. So, a sort of perfect storm birthed COPS. It’s safe to say that American television has never been the same since. Langley’s concept was technically simple, but no one seemed to share his enthusiasm. He was repeatedly told that no show would succeed without a narrator, music, or plot. (Ha. Little did they know.)
Langley and Barbour tried for several years to get a network to pick up the program. With the 1988 strike, Langley’s lack of scripted elements sounded appealing. “Suddenly, a show with no actors, host, script, or writers sounded pretty good,” Langley said. That’s when the then-novice Fox Television network picked up the show at a low cost, since it had no union writers.
Fox, however, didn’t completely abandon the notion of star power. Burt Lancaster was brought in to voice a brief introduction for the pilot episode. The program debuted on March 11, 1989, and by 1991, it went prime time, with two episodes in the 8 p.m. slot. The show was called Primetime Cops in promos for a number of years.
It was one of only two remaining first-run primetime programs that aired on Saturday nights on the four major U.S. broadcast networks (the other was CBS’s 48 Hours Mystery). Before COPS, there had been only a few examples of “cinéma vérité” productions in which the work of police officers was documented (like Police in 1982).
The first season consisted of 15 episodes centering on the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in Florida. Since then, COPS has often been one of the highest-rated reality programs, thanks in part to its low budget (estimated at $200,000 per episode in the early 90s) and its capacity to show new material each week.
The original concept of COPS was to follow police officers into their homes and tape their domestic lives along with their fieldwork. In the 1989 pilot, a captain of Florida’s Broward County police department was filmed arguing with his wife after a long shift.
Critic Tom Ensign referred to it as the “only phony aspect” of the show. The premise was dropped almost immediately as it wasn’t at all what Langley was hoping to convey. Soon enough, the format of having three self-contained and unscripted segments without any narration or music became the show’s formula.
In a 2007 interview in which he discussed the show’s format, Langley explained that each episode of COPS typically began with an action sequence (like a car or foot chase or restraining an uncooperative suspect), a “slow-things-down” sequence (in which there was a rational conversation), and finally a moral message of some kind (like a cop lecturing somebody to stay off of drugs).
Since Season 2, every episode of COPS ends with a police radio excerpt of a female officer saying, “132 and Bush, I’ve got him at gunpoint.” A female dispatcher replies, “132 and Bush. Cover’s emergency service response codes.” Then, the music comes in…
An instrumental version of the song Bad Boys plays over the credits of COPS. The theme song actually came first – before the show. Bad Boys might, indeed, be one of the most recognizable theme songs on TV ever. The group behind the song, the reggae group Inner Circle, wasn’t thinking about Langley or his show when they recorded it.
Inner Circle’s track was on a 1987 album, which was then heard by a COPS crew member, who then played the track for Langley. Soon enough, the rights to the single were sold for $2,500. While the show originally used the full song for the pilot, it was later whittled down to just the chorus for reruns.
In a 2010 interview with Forbes, Langley was asked what the most surprising thing that making COPS has taught him over the years about human behavior. His response: “That more people are good than bad, and that criminal behavior is aberrant behavior — it isn’t the norm.” Ironically, a show that is solely based on the bad apples can teach us that people are generally good.
Langley continued: “I think I give humanity far more credit, having witnessed it at its worst. Rather than make me a cynic, it’s made me realize what a small percentage of the population actually commits crimes.”
Considering that police officers do actually conduct serious work, COPS’s film crews can’t just randomly show up at any precinct they want to and start rolling the cameras. Aside from legal concerns, having a camera crew follow you around for the entire night is pretty annoying.
That said, the film crews need to get permission to shoot, and not all precincts are willing. Both Honolulu and Chicago, for example, have refused to allow filming over and over again – so much so that COPS producers have stopped asking them. Their reason: “Police work is not entertainment.” (We beg to differ).
Another reason given for refusing to be filmed was that COPS was seen as a show that “trivializes policing,” according to Chicago PD Deputy Director of News Affairs Patrick Camden. However, some police departments consider it a teaching tool. Moreover, they use it as a form of recruitment, too.
Unlike Chicago and Honolulu, dozens of police departments have agreed to be filmed because they want to use the show as a recruiting tool for officers. What if a cop does something embarrassing? Well, don’t forget that precincts almost always have the right to screen footage before it gets aired.
Speaking of giving permission, have you ever wondered if those being chased and caught by the cops ever gave their permission to be seen on air? Well, contrary to popular belief, being arrested doesn’t waive your right to not be filmed for a national TV show.
Producers of COPS have to get releases signed by every arrestee and suspect. If they’re already in handcuffs, the crew has to follow them to jail and have them sign there. Langley said timing is key; for instance, asking during a fight is a problem. It’s estimated that 95 percent of people filmed sign a waiver. According to Langley, they just want to be on TV.
The official COPS policy is that the camera crew and microphone operators are only there to observe. They’re technically not allowed to interfere with anything going on in front of them. The exception, however, is if an officer’s life is in danger. Which does, after all, make sense.
There was one instance in which a suspect was about to snatch an officer’s weapon when the sound man quickly put down his gear and jumped in. There was another occurrence when a crew member administered CPR to a woman in need. Luckily, he was a paramedic. Apparently, the officer didn’t know the technique.
COPS hardly ever breaks from its winning formula when it comes to portraying officers on patrol, planning raids, or carrying out sting operations. But in 2011, a crew in Boynton Beach, Florida learned that an undercover officer cop named Widy Jean had taped a confession from a woman looking for a hitman to kill her husband.
The police then set up a “crime scene” for the suspect, a woman named Dalia Dippolito, and COPS filmed her reaction. Dippolito was later tried and convicted of solicitation to commit first-degree murder. When COPS played a hand in her arrest, they ensured they got something out of it.
Dippolito insisted that the show used an “elaborate ruse” involving a fake crime scene in order to arrest her. A producer made sure to get her signature on a release waiver so they could air the ordeal on TV, which became the focus of an entire episode.
According to Dippolito, the release form was all a trick since her husband apparently just wanted to get on TV. Her attorney mentioned it during the trial, but it didn’t work – the jury still found her guilty. Dippolito claimed that she didn’t want her husband dead and maintained the fact that she and her friends faked the “hit” plan just so they could post it on YouTube and get famous.
Just as sex sells, crime pays. In 2005, Broadcasting and Cable estimated that COPS generated $500 million in 17 seasons. Its syndication, licensing, and DVD sales brought in huge profits for the network.
But if you’re wondering, no, they don’t pay the cops. Langley (who’s been highly critical of the reality TV that followed in the show’s wake) has always had a strict no-compensation policy for those featured on the show. Whether it’s a suspect or a police officer, “We don’t pay people to be themselves,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2011. “If you pay them, you’re affecting their behavior.”
Even though Langley prefers to think of his show as a documentary series, he’s also okay with taking credit for COPS being a pioneer of the whole reality TV craze. Then again, many shows like to take that title.
Despite not being a fan of many of the reality shows that followed COPS, he did say, “If I am the father — or godfather — of reality TV, I don’t want to take responsibility for all of the b***ards that followed.” He said some of those shows “are great and some frankly deplorable.”
It may come as a surprise – or not – that there was a case when someone was killed during the production of COPS. In 2014, a cop accidentally shot and killed a crew member, sound engineer Bryce Dion. It all began when a pellet gun-wielding suspect pointed his gun at a Wendy’s employee.
On August 26, 2014, around 9:20 p.m., COPS was recording the Omaha PD in Omaha, Nebraska. It was their final week working there since arriving in June. One police officer drove up to a Wendy’s restaurant in the midst of a robbery and called for backup.
One of the responding officers was with a two-person COPS crew (a cameraman along with Bryce Dion) who were present in his cruiser. The crew chose to begin recording the robbery inside Wendy’s. Soon, the police opened fire, killing the suspect, along with Dion, who was tragically hit by friendly fire.
The suspect was later identified as 32-year-old Cortez Washington, who was shot several times during the shootout. One cop fired through a window, hitting Dion, who was wearing a bullet-proof vest, once under the arm. Dion was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival at the hospital.
38-year-old Dion had worked on COPS for seven years. Langley Productions stated that in the 25 years of video recording, this happened to be the first incident where a crew member was seriously injured or killed.
In Dion’s honor, COPS aired an hour-long “best of” episode featuring his work on the show. As for the police in question, they reportedly claimed that the suspect opened fire on them. But, according to Dion’s family, the officers were simply excited to be filmed, and the tragic incident resulted in them showing off for the cameras.
Detective Darren Cunningham was the officer who responded to the call. Officer Brooks Riley and Officer Jason Wilhelm were the ones whom the COPS crew accompanied. After the incident, the authorities placed the three officers on paid leave as the investigation was still ongoing.
A grand jury later acquitted all three of misconduct. As for Washington, the suspect who was shot, he had a lengthy criminal record in Kansas. At the time of the robbery, he was on parole. Dion’s brother, Trevor Dion, filed a lawsuit in 2016 against the City of Omaha, alleging that inadequate communication and coordination contributed to his brother’s death. The lawsuit also blamed the police department’s decision to invite the COPS crew to join the officers.
After more than two decades as Fox’s go-to hit and longest-running show, the network pulled the plug on COPS. But fans didn’t have to worry, seeing that Spike TV picked up the show. Spike’s president Kevin Kay explained that, to him, “COPS is a remarkable series.” Kay felt that it was “the perfect addition to [their] primetime lineup on Saturday nights.”
On a side note, Langley’s crew would shoot 400 hours of footage for one single 22-minute episode. But over the years, as storage formats have come and gone, it meant their continued existence was either impractical or expensive to convert. In other words, unused footage was either taped over or thrown out.
Even though COPS was renewed in 2020, it didn’t last long. Paramount Network was forced to cancel the show amid nationwide protests against police brutality. A recent podcast, Running from COPS, shed new light on why and how it happened. Journalist Dan Taberski, who watched the show for decades, decided to take a closer look.
His podcast dives deep into the production of the show and reveals the way COPS distorts situations. He realized the show was still airing and noticed that the episodes were remarkably similar to what they were like 30 years ago.
That’s when Taberski figured it might be time to examine what was really happening behind the cameras. He explained that he was partly captivated by the show he grew up with, while also partly questioning it. He asked himself, ‘How are they doing this? How does this work?’
He wondered why the police let them film them, how much control they had, and if the suspects have any say over being on the show. He noted that when watching the show, you constantly see things that make you wonder if police can really do that, like aggressive use of Tasers and police dogs.
Taberski explained that when COPS debuted in 1989, it was the height of the whole “War on Drugs.” The crime rate was quite high, and the public’s image of – and faith in – the police and their ability to fight crime was at a record low.
He explained on his podcast that COPS took advantage of that particular time in our culture. Policing was being shown as putting people in headlocks and busting down doors. There were also a massive number of drug busts. 36 percent of all COPS segments are drug-related crimes (over three times the rate in real life).
Fear was high and people wanted to believe that the police were “doing something.” These days, things have changed. With YouTube and iPhones, and easy access to cellphone cameras, COPS is no longer the dominant depiction of policing in America.
But up until this point, COPS was the window into the cop scene. According to Taberski, it was undeniably powerful in terms of how Americans saw policing and what they thought was “good” versus “bad” policing. COPS was vastly different from the way policing was covered in the news. The news doesn’t show the real deal.
With news reports, we get a glimpse of the police only after the fact, at a press conference or explaining their behavior. It was a major breakthrough when Langley convinced local police departments that his show would be good for them – that it would be a way for them to bypass the news.
He convinced them that the show would portray them the way they wanted to be portrayed, and that they would be entitled to editorial control over the footage. The police saw all the rough footage and decided what did and didn’t go into the show.
Taberski wasn’t shocked to learn that COPS producers carried guns of their own. They are, after all, put into dangerous situations and on their own. According to Taberski, it just goes to show you how close the producers and police really were.
This isn’t the kind of documentary making where filmmakers are just outside observers, capturing things as they happen. “These guys were working together – though the police were always in control,” he said. Taberski explained just how hard it was to find and track down prior suspects who had been on COPS.
“We went to great lengths, and we only ended up finding nine,” he explained. Of those nine, eight said they either didn’t sign a waiver or they were too drunk or high to know if they were even consenting. There’s also the possibility that they were coerced into signing the release.
Taberski said that in finding the suspects, “every story is upsetting.” He described how every story is about someone feeling that they were exploited. These are “people who don’t have a lot of power and they can’t do anything to fight back.”
Taberski teamed up with producer Henry Molofsky to make his podcast, exploring the history and cultural impact COPS had on American television. Including interviews with Langley, police officers who were on the show and even people who were arrested on the show, it gives a rare insight into the making of the show.
Taberski and Molofsky wanted their research for the podcast to be as “academically rigorous” as possible, Molofsky said. They watched and gathered data on a total of 846 episodes of the show, which counts for 82% of the series’ run up to that point.
For each episode, they recorded the race and gender of both the police officers and the suspects, the nature of the crimes, whether the suspect was inebriated or not and if the stop led to an arrest or a car chase.
Molofsky referred to the whole experience as “disturbing.” He said, “I think all of us would have nightmares, which was revealing.” In the end, they collected 90,000 data points and compared them year by year to statistics from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting. The goal was to determine how the real world compared to COPS.
What they found was that drug crime was much more prevalent on COPS than it is in real life (35% of the crime on COPS versus 13% in reality). The same thing went for prostitution (5% on COPS versus less than 1% in reality) as well as violent crime (7% on COPS versus 4% in real life).
Surveying the episodes also revealed just how much more effective law enforcement became over the years on COPS. In Season 2, 61% of the show’s segments ended in an arrest. By Season 30, the arrest rate was at 95%.
“Basically, it presents a world that is much more dangerous than real life,” Taberski said. The police on COPS seem to be much more successful than they actually are. The use of force in the show “consistently presents bad policing as good policing,” he noted, “by tazing people when they shouldn’t be tazing, [using] illegal holds, siccing dogs on people without the proper warning — just over and over.”
The Running From Cops team was also able to get their hands on raw, unedited footage of a routine drug bust portrayed in a 2013 episode of COPS. In the arrest that was broadcast on the show, a teenage couple was pulled over late at night.
A cop quickly found traces of white powder in their car. A roadside drug test determined that it was cocaine and the couple was then arrested. In the unedited footage, however, the officer was seen searching the car for over 14 minutes before finding the substance.
It took three attempts before getting a positive result, and he turned off the camera before the final test turned up positive. “The police officer denies he planted that evidence, but even if he didn’t, just the pure disparity between what they showed and what actually happened…” Taberski said.
Running From Cops also looked into the phenomenon of Live PD, a hit reality show on A&E that used the COPS formula and took it to the next level. Live PD followed police officers as they made arrests in quasi-real-time. The show was canceled following news that a crew member filmed the death of a 40-year-old Black man who died in police custody.
While supporters of COPS and Live PD emphasize the “transparency” these shows bring to law enforcement, it should be known that producers are dependent upon the cooperation of police, so it’s very unlikely that they would ever agree to being portrayed in a negative light.
COPS also has a way of polishing the public image of the police by making the job seem more exciting than it is. How many segments do you see on the show featuring officers directing traffic or filling out incident reports? Exactly.
Molofsky noted that the number of cops on the show who said they wanted to become a cop because they watched the show “was pretty telling.” They talked to police departments that participated and they admitted “straight-up” that they use COPS for recruiting officers. Apparently, wages are lower and they have recruiting shortages, so “these shows drive up recruiting.”
Taberski hopes that TV has reached a turning point and shows like COPS are a thing of the past. “There’s a part of me that feels bad saying that, because I know people work on these shows.” But he explained that when you see those who were victimized by the show, there’s simply “no reason for it, there’s no excuse for it and it just shouldn’t be happening.”
In September 2020, COPS went back into production, according to Wikipedia. New episodes are reportedly being produced for syndication and to fulfill contracts overseas that have yet to expire. Langley, however, hasn’t secured a domestic distributor.
Despite all the negative reception COPS has garnered, the reality show has received some awards. It earned four Primetime Emmy nominations for Outstanding Informational Series (1989, 1990, 1993, and 1994). They did win other awards, like the American Television Award for Best Reality-Based Program in 1993.
In 2008, it won a USA Eddie award for Best Edited Reality Series. Then, in 2016, COPS was nominated for a Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Unstructured Reality Show. It became the longest-running show on Fox (which has since been surpassed by The Simpsons). It is, however, Fox’s longest running live action series, after America’s Most Wanted was canceled after 23 years.