How ‘Cops’ Became the Most Polarizing Reality TV Show in America

What one of TV’s longest-running reality shows says about race and our relationship with the police.

Another night, another arrest, on "Cops." (Cops.com/Langley Productions)

Tim Stelloh | The Marshall Project & Longreads | January 2018 | 25 minutes (6,325 words)

This story was published in partnership with The Marshall Project.

***

Morgan Langley leans toward a large computer screen. He isn’t sure if the video clip is still there, posted to a random YouTube channel named after a ’90s punk-ska act, but after a few moments, he finds it. Out of a black screen flashes a white Ford Mustang with blacked-out windows and chrome rims. Langley, who is an executive producer of one of America’s longest-running reality shows, “Cops,” narrates. “This kid here is actually selling a thousand pills of ecstasy to an undercover cop,” he says excitedly.

On the screen, a skinny white kid with a straight-brim baseball cap and a collection of painful-looking face piercings has plunked down on the Mustang’s passenger seat. Next to him is a woman whose blurred face is framed by sandy blonde hair. They briefly discuss logistics, and a second guy with dark skin and wrap-around sunglasses hops in. He asks if she has the cash; she asks if he has the goods. He asks if she’s a cop; she laughs.

“Okay, we’re just gonna do it like this,” he says, grabbing a pistol from his waistband. “Just give me your money.” Seconds later, officers in green tactical gear swarm the car, and he’s nose-down on the pavement, handcuffed and delivering a tear-streaked explanation: “Sir, they gave me a gun and told me they were gonna kill me.”

Langley, who is 43 and has the doughy look of an aging skater, interrupts. “I think this is why it went viral,” he says. Langley is showing me the video in his cluttered office on the third floor of his production company’s mud-colored building in Santa Monica. Since the clip appeared in an episode of “Cops” in 2011, it’s racked up 13.6 million views and almost 11,000 comments, many of which mock the drug-dealing purse snatcher’s apparent about-face. “He thought he was a tough boy to rob a woman [at] gunpoint,” one says. “THEN CRIES LIKE A BABY.”

The clip portrayed a police encounter that couldn’t have been more different than the viral cop videos Americans have become accustomed to seeing over the past several years — the ones where an officer fires a burst of bullets into the back of a fleeing, unarmed black man, or puts a chokehold on another man as he gasps for breath. But just like the cell phone–captured deaths of Walter Scott and Eric Garner, the “Cops” clip seemed to expose a set of deeply personal beliefs about our frontline guardians of law and order. In one set of videos, they are the ruthless agents of a racist justice system; in another, they are unflinching heroes conquering the forces of depravity.

This is, of course, a rough approximation of the present debate over policing. So how much has the country’s most durable portrayal of American law enforcement shaped that debate? The long answer is this: Since 1989, “Cops” has delivered the officer’s view of crime and punishment every week, first on Fox, now on Paramount Network (formerly Spike), where new episodes from the show’s 30th season air every Monday night. “Cops” gained instant popularity in a genre it helped pioneer — reality television — and in the decades since, the show has remained a powerful and divisive force in American life. Civil rights activists, criminologists, and other observers have described it as a racist and classist depiction of the country, one in which crime is a relentless threat and officers are often in pitched battle against the poor black and brown perpetrators of that crime. They’re the plain-clothes narcotics detectives barreling through a suspected crack house, for instance, or the patrol officers racing after a suspect who’s bailed on a traffic stop. As Rashad Robinson, the racial justice activist and executive director of Color of Change, puts it: “It represented for us what was the very worst of the way poverty and crime and communities of color are shown on TV.”

Criminologists who have studied the show say you can’t draw a straight line between the screen and, say, juries repeatedly refusing to convict police officers charged in use-of-force cases, or people believing President Donald Trump when he says that America is in the throes of a sustained and uncontrolled violent crime wave. And yet, social scientists have consistently found that fans of “Cops” and shows like it have a clutch of distorted beliefs about crime, including this: They think that black people commit more of it than they actually do.

Black Lives Matter / Eric Garner protest

A 2014 protest in New York City, after a grand jury declined to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner by putting him in a fatal chokehold. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

Within the pro-“Cops” camp, the view is quite different. To the show’s co-creator — and Morgan’s father — John Langley, it simply conveys the “raw” reality of police work. And the stuff about race always seemed off-target, Morgan tells me. His father long ago decided he didn’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, so he insisted that the show feature as many white people being apprehended as people of color. “He did that forever,” Morgan says. “And he still does it.”

To Stephen Chao, the former Fox executive who helped launch the show, its unvarnished simplicity remains one of the most radical things he’s ever seen on television. To Steve Dye, the police chief of the Grand Prairie Police Department in Texas, where the show was recently filmed, “Cops” is a powerful marketing and recruitment tool amid historically challenging times for law enforcement.

“Cops,” of course, is no longer the Fox behemoth it was in the ’90s, when it topped more than 8 million viewers an episode and was often the most watched reality show. Robinson proudly attributes this to Color of Change: In May 2013, a few months after the group launched a campaign to oust “Cops” from Fox, the show moved to Spike. There, it flourished, becoming one of the channel’s most watched shows with an average of 1.1 million viewers per episode last year. This season featured its 1,000th episode, while a Hollywood adaptation, possibly directed by Ruben Fleischer, of “Zombieland” and “Gangster Squad,” is expected to be released this year.

And yet, “Cops” almost never happened. This is the story of how it did — and the polarizing, influential thing it became.

***

“Cops” creator John Langley. (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

At 74, John Langley is a big man with a trim beard and a full head of white hair. When we meet at a restaurant in Santa Monica, he has a Sterling Hayden-as-Roger Wade vibe to him — minus the heavy drinking — and he says “crap” a lot, as in, “Crime is interesting, it deals with ultimates: life, death, right, wrong, good, evil, all that crap.”

He was born in Oklahoma City, but his father, who worked for the aerospace manufacturer McDonnell Douglas, moved the family to Los Angeles before John could walk. After an unremarkable stint in the Army, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English and his master’s in comparative literature. For a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California at Irvine, he studied Kant, Longinus, “and crap like that,” he says. He left in 1971, before completing his dissertation. “After a while I said, ‘What am I doing here?’’’ he recalls. “You stop reading. You’re just reading critics.”

John got a job doing sales and publicity for an airline. He got married, had a few kids, and tried freelance screenwriting on the side. His scripts eventually sold years later — including “Deadly Sins,” a sex and violence-laced whodunit starring Alyssa Milano — but in the meantime, he and a former business partner got a $100,000 loan from a distant relative and made a documentary called “Cocaine Blues.” The film, released in 1983, was about the exploding drug scene, and it did well, earning awards and decent distribution. It was also what led to the conception of “Cops.”

Police officers had played an important role in the movie, and John wanted to do a TV show just about them — “a handheld series following cops in their footsteps to show you exactly what police work is like with no interference,” he says. “No narration. No host. No music. All natural audio.”

At the time, police departments across the country were trying to rehabilitate their image with the public — or at least with significant parts of it. During the racial turbulence of the 1960s, police sometimes used brutal tactics against civil rights and anti-war protesters. Police conduct during dozens of race riots was later revealed by a government commission to be a widespread and central grievance in black communities across the country.

One of the great technological innovations of the 20th century, the automobile, had also left police officers increasingly isolated from the communities they patrolled. “The perception was: Where are the police when you need them?” says Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “They were not there. They were in their cars.” By the 1980s, some police departments were mandating officer training to emphasize, among other things, the idea that the police were not merely the state’s enforcers. They were there to provide a community service. They were there to serve and protect, as the slogan put it.

Another shift was happening in Hollywood and on television. Early portrayals of the clean-cut crime-solvers of “Dragnet” and “Adam-12” were joined by more complicated ones: Clint Eastwood pursuing a no-holds-barred type of police work in “Dirty Harry,” for instance, or “Hill Street Blues,” described by its producers as “an hour drama with 13 continuing characters living through a Gordian knot of personal and professional relationships.” Still, there was little precedent for what John Langley was proposing. “Candid Camera” had been around for a couple of decades, of course, and, in 1973, PBS broadcast “An American Family,” a 12-part series about the fracturing of a single family in Santa Barbara. But John pitched “Cops” to the networks anyway. “They all said the same thing,” he recalls. “‘You have to have a narrator, you have to have a script, you have to have at least a voiceover.’ I said, ‘No, no, no.’” Every time there was a personnel change, he’d pitch it again, he says. But it wasn’t until five years after the release of “Cocaine Blues” that he got some traction.

In 1986, his work appeared on a 93-minute Geraldo Rivera special called “American Vice: The Doping of a Nation.” The show featured Rivera showing a live audience an already recorded documentary about the “dope world’s heart of darkness,” as he put it. Occasionally, Rivera would interrupt the film, breaking news–style, and a television in the studio would flash to a drug bust happening at that moment somewhere in the country.

It was a logistically complicated gambit. The stunt required, among other things, a helicopter, a satellite, a live director in New York, and camera crews tagging along on three busts, including one in Fort Lauderdale that John was there for. In his telling, it was nearly derailed by the vagaries of television: The director wanted to cut to commercial as deputies were preparing to break down a door. Then, a camera crew member panicked. “At the last second, the sound guy goes, ‘I can’t do it,’” John recalls. “I said, ‘Give me the goddamn [thing].’ So I grabbed his boom and all the sound equipment and started running behind the cameraman.” As they burst inside, John says, the intended target — a drug trafficking Bahamian police officer — was watching “American Vice.” “How’s that for a postmodern phenomenon?” John says, chuckling.

The show topped 15 million viewers, according to Rivera’s website. (Rivera did not respond to a request for comment.) That, along with the 1988 Writers Guild strike, helped usher in a new era of unscripted television, and eventually won John an audience with Stephen Chao, then a young rising executive at Fox who’d just created “America’s Most Wanted.” To Chao, the Geraldo gimmick was “preposterous” but interesting. And he liked the concept of “Cops.” “I’d never seen a real drug bust,” he says. While he’d seen reporting on drug busts in the past, he’d never watched one filmed in what he calls the cinema verite style of the “American Vice” special. “The unvarnished simple version of it was so alien to me.”

John told Chao that he could produce a new weekly show. “You have to go back before there was reality TV,” Chao says. “My mind was whirling. I was like, ‘How can you possibly deliver such quality every week, with so much action?’ He shrugged his shoulders. He said: ‘I’m the pizza man. I can deliver every week.’ It was such a stupid thing to say. I laughed, of course. None of us knew it was possible.”

***

The show that premiered in 1989, with its signature theme song “Bad Boys” by the reggae band Inner Circle, was only slightly different than its current iteration. Shot in Broward County, John chose the same county that’d been used for his segment in “American Vice.” The sheriff there, Nick Navarro, died in 2011, but John says he sold him on the idea of transparency. “I said, ‘Listen, in this whole realm of law enforcement, my opinion is the chief mistake is to not be transparent,’” he says. If there was a confrontation between a civilian and an officer who used what might seem like excessive force, for instance, the authorities couldn’t just retreat to the bunker. “They’re going to start imagining the worst,” he says.

But it was a peculiar kind of transparency that John was proposing. If Navarro didn’t like something, he could kill it. This wasn’t a deeply reported journalistic endeavor, after all; this was about access. “We said, ‘If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for us,’ because it’s by invitation,” John recalls. “We’re not going to burn any cops or do anything that’s going to screw up your department. That’s the only way we can do the show.”

John assembled five teams of camera and sound operators who embedded with “good talkers,” as he puts it, in homicide, patrol, and narcotics units. No tripods were allowed. For every one minute of footage that was aired, they shot 100. If they wanted to include a segment that didn’t blur a perpetrator’s face, they’d have to get a signed release. “You and I would say: ‘I don’t want that; it shows me in the worst light,’” recalls a former cameraman who asks not to be named because the show didn’t authorize him to talk to me. “Nine out of 10 times, when they found out we were the ‘Cops’ TV show, they’d sign,” he says. “They saw it as a badge of honor.”

The pilot and first few episodes feel more like a documentary than the quick-hit, on-the-street vignettes that the show later perfected. We see Sheriff Navarro surveying the interior of a crack house, then we see him at a reelection campaign party promising to rid the county of the drug. We see a patrol deputy, Jerry Wurms, pulling over carloads of drug-hungry white kids cruising black neighborhoods, then we see him proposing to his girlfriend and colleague, deputy Linda Canada. (“Are you serious?” she asks before saying yes.)

Wurms is tall, with thinning hair and stylish black shades. In those early episodes, he comes off as a sometimes severe, sometimes magnanimous parent armed with a cache of camera-ready lectures: “You see me? I’m the only white face in this area,” he warns during one of the white-kid busts. “You don’t belong here. Okay? It has nothing to do with white or black. It has to do with crimes against persons. People that come over here to buy drugs get involved in serious crimes.” Canada, with her voluminous, frosted-blonde hair and matter-of-fact manner, isn’t all that different. She dresses down prostitutes. She tenderly calms a young girl whose mother is involved in a domestic dispute.

The show was a “rocket” from the beginning, according to Chao, and Canada became something of a publicity machine — a new kind of celebrity in an era when the hard-charging hero cop had evolved into a staple of Hollywood blockbusters like “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard.” Segments and stories about Canada appeared on “Entertainment Tonight” and “A Current Affair,” in TV Guide and People. (“Blonde,” “very attractive,” and “the most compelling character to fill a serge suit since Angie Dickinson” is how People described her.)

In August 1989, eight months after the show premiered, Canada and Wurms were flown to New York City, put up in a Manhattan hotel, and treated to dinner. Then, following the comedians Sid Caesar and Rich Hall, she walked onto the stage of “Late Night with David Letterman.” As Wurms watched Canada from a television screen in the green room, he knew her appearance signaled something big. “Not too many regular cops get to be on David Letterman,” he says.

“Let me understand this,” Wurms recalls Letterman saying. “The guys ride around with you taping things. That’s a TV show?”

They both laughed, Wurms says, and after two minutes it was over.

***

cops-still-2

Another “Cops” takedown. (Langley Productions).

“Cops” quickly expanded to other counties, cities, and towns — Los Angeles and Multnomah, Las Vegas and Houston—and by 1992, it had been syndicated and nominated for two Emmys. In time, it would spawn its own imitators with titles like “LAPD: Life on the Beat,” “Alaska State Troopers,” and, more recently, “Live PD,” which innovated the genre with a return to John Langley’s Geraldo technique—the live feed. But back then, in the late ’80s, Wurms recalls, “Cops” was “groundbreaking.” Social media didn’t exist. There were no cell phones, and what was probably the most high-profile, real-life police video of the century—the beating of Rodney King—was still a few years away. “Cops” married the growing pop culture obsession with police to the often unpredictable nature of the job. As Wurms puts it: “It’s not staged. It’s real life stuff, and you [never knew] what you were walking into when they were filming with you.”

But along with the show’s instant commercial success came a heap of contempt from pop culture critics. Rolling Stone mocked it, saying policing had never looked “so real. Or so shabby. Or so pointless.” Newsweek suggested it was creating a culture of guilt-by-television, while The New York Times described it as a portrait of racism: “The overwhelmingly white troops of police are the good guys,” the paper’s then TV critic, John J. O’Connor, wrote shortly after the show’s pilot. “The bad guys are overwhelmingly black.”

Soon criminologists and media scholars began quantifying such critiques. A content analysis published in 1994 found that the show’s officers were indeed, on balance, white, while suspects were more likely to be black or Hispanic. Another study conducted that same year concluded that the TV officers were far better crime solvers than most, at least as measured in official government statistics, and it found the show’s portrayal of violent crime to be more caricature than reality. Rapes, robberies, murders, and the like accounted for just 13 percent of all crime committed in the United States in 1994, yet in the world of “Cops,” it was 43 percent. The same study found that “Cops” was far more likely to associate black and brown people than whites with violent crime—40 percent to less than 13 percent—while one of the country’s most victimized demographics, young black men, was underrepresented.

In a study published eight years later, researchers examined how the show actually shaped people’s views of the police. They found that if you were white, male, without a college education, and a fan of “Cops” and other similar shows, you were significantly more likely to think of police officers as a force for good in society. For black people, the shows did nothing to improve their attitudes about cops.

Not that this should have been all that surprising. For as long as researchers have been studying Americans’ opinions about police, they’ve found that beneath a generally positive outlook—on balance, we tend to respect, trust, and have confidence in law enforcement—there are all manner of nuances, including this: “The research says that experiences with police have a lot to do with attitudes,” says Steve Wilson, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. In other words, white people, who have fewer bad encounters with the law than black people, tend to like the police more. For African-Americans, the inverse is true.

Gray Cavendar, a criminologist at Arizona State University who’s been studying how the media presents issues of law, crime, and justice for two decades, says that research has consistently shown four things about people who watch shows like “Cops”: They believe there’s more crime than there actually is; they believe that they’re more likely to be a victim of it than they are; they believe that black people commit more of it than they do; and they believe that police are better at catching perpetrators than they are.

Still, Cavendar and other criminologists say the research hasn’t been able to determine if such shows create those perceptions or reinforce them. “If I had to make a call, it’s the latter,” says Raymond Surette, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida and the author of “Media, Crime and Criminal Justice.” “They’re attracting people who are going to have these attitudes. They might not be thought out, but the shows can help crystallize them. It’s not going to take a Nancy Pelosi liberal and change her worldview.”

***

The show’s reputation as a bastion of racism stuck, and by 2013 it had become a worthy target for Rashad Robinson and Color of Change. Founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by Van Jones, the CNN commentator, and James Rucker, who directed grassroots mobilization for MoveOn.org, the organization uses its considerable membership to drive black advocacy online. The group’s campaign against the show began after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was killed in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman. The case helped ignite the Black Lives Matter movement and refocused the country’s attention on the allegation that police mistreatment of people of color, particularly black men, is widespread and routine.

At the same time, a change was unfolding inside the country’s police departments that would only inflame this criticism. Though American political leaders embraced the post-1960s reform-minded rhetoric of community policing, says Maria Haberfeld, the John Jay College police science professor, many of the country’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies barely taught important skills such as effective communication. Tactics like de-escalation all begin there, Haberfeld says. “It’s more important than qualifying them to shoot twice a year.” Yet some agencies offer just 15 minutes on the topic, she says—and that’s within larger training regimes that remain pitiful next to a country like, say, Norway. There, officers study for three years and earn a degree in police studies before they hit the streets; here, Haberfeld says, the average department requires just 17 weeks.

Around the turn of the century, those same departments began acquiring high-powered rifles, tanks, sonic weapons, and other old military equipment. The idea was to prepare them to fight terrorism, Haberfeld says, but the use of such weaponry became synonymous with the much criticized, paramilitary-like response seen in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. “They start using the equipment without any consideration as to how people will perceive this,” Haberfeld tells me.

Police in Ferguson, Missouri

The Ferguson, Missouri police during protests after the killing of teenager Michael Brown in 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Color of Change, meanwhile, was campaigning to get the Department of Justice involved in Martin’s case, but Robinson says the sequence of events that led to the 17-year-old’s death deserved attention too. “It was a story fueled by a fear of black folks,” Robinson says.

A few years before, Color of Change organized a successful advertising boycott against Glenn Beck’s show on Fox after he called Barack Obama a racist who hates white people. Now, Robinson says, he wanted to do something similar to the television shows promoting the fear-of-black-folks story. The group settled on “Cops.” Robinson, who is 39, had seen the show when he was growing up on Long Island and thought it was “disgusting,” he says, with its “glorified set up of, like, behind the scenes of the war on drugs, following the hero law enforcement figure, with no backstory or context of the people whose lives and communities are being portrayed.” So in January 2013, as the network was deciding which shows to greenlight for the next season, Robinson says, Color of Change launched its campaign.

Portrait of Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of Color of Change

Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of Color of Change (Karsten Moran/The Marshall Project)

At the time, the group had 750,000 members, and 50,000 of them signed a four-paragraph petition asking its recipients—a handful of Fox executives—to reconsider supporting the show. Next, Robinson says, its members started dialing network offices: the president, public relations, and so on. The group developed a “Drop ‘Cops’” advertisement for Hollywood and trade publications—only Ad Age printed it, Robinson says—and planned to target the show’s sponsors.

The campaign got the attention of Fox executives, Robinson says, and he and the group’s campaign director, Arisha Hatch, discussed their plans during several phone calls with them. The executives mostly listened, he adds, and when they did speak, they were noncommittal about the show’s cancellation. (A Fox spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.)

On May 6, Robinson was on his way to John F. Kennedy International Airport, in New York, when he got a call from Arisha Hatch. He was about to catch a flight to Los Angeles, where, at an event planned for the next day in front of Fox’s L.A. offices, he would deliver the group’s 50,000 signatures. Ministers, Color of Change members, and local politicians would hold forth on the perils of “Cops.” Reporters would cover it. But Hatch had other news: “They’re canceled,” he recalls her saying. “I said, ‘Oh—really? Do we have that in writing?’” Soon, they called off the protest and released a statement claiming victory in the fight to bring “25 years of racist myth-making on network TV to an end.”

20drop-cops

Color of Change ad campaign.

***

It’s unclear what the executives at Spike thought about this, though the channel did pick up the show immediately. Kevin Kay, president of the newly-rebranded Paramount Network, wouldn’t talk to me for this story—though, through a spokesman, he provided a statement praising John Langley’s “ingenuity” and the show’s “big and broad audience.” It’s also unclear what the executives at Fox thought. Though the show’s popularity was still surging—the season finale that year was the second most watched show on television for its night, drawing nearly 3 million viewers—I couldn’t find any statements from the network about the show’s cancellation, and a spokesman didn’t respond to requests for comment.

When I ask John about Color of Change’s effort to derail “Cops,” he says he was unaware of it and attributes the show’s demise at Fox to an “internal campaign.” Morgan adds: “I think ‘Cops’ was just an old asset for them that they didn’t really care about anymore.”

Still, the charge that “Cops” is racist, or that it betrays a clearly defined agenda beyond its premise, frustrates Morgan. So does a question about whether the show has been a simplistically pro-cop parallel to the viral video phenomenon that fueled Black Lives Matter. “If you’re paying attention, there are some subversive cues that might make you think about the ways the laws are working,” he says. Someone commits a petty drug crime, say, and is instantly faced with a wrecking ball of a criminal justice system. Instead of blaming the show, he says, “Why not look to the real life we’re documenting?”

Plus, Morgan adds, producing a show that features all white people in one role or all black people in another would be bad for business. (“For all the obvious entertainment reasons, you don’t want to have one bland white cop out there,” as John puts it.) Then, there’s this: At some point early on in the show, John reconfigured it in response to the race analysis. “My dad decided, ‘I don’t want to perpetuate the stereotypes, so I’m going to put more white people on ‘Cops’ if I can as perps,’” Morgan says. “For years he was doing that. ‘Oh, that’s a Hispanic guy and a black guy. We need a third act to be the white guy.’” (At least one content analysis confirms this. The same study that found that violent crime on “Cops” was far more likely to be associated with black and brown people also found that whites were portrayed as suspects nearly as often as non-whites.)

This revelation caused a minor frenzy a few years ago, after the conservative author Benjamin Shapiro published interview clips with John and other Hollywood executives that, as Breitbart put it, “expos[ed] the systematic take-over of television by liberal writers, producers and executives.” The comments also made their way into another narrative peddled by some of the more extreme right-wing factions—a narrative about the violent, widespread targeting of white people by people of color and the media’s efforts to cover it up. One white nationalist writer presented John’s quotes as evidence that the “real perpetrators of brutal violence against our people” were being “airbrushed out of the picture because showing us the truth might make us wake up to the dangers posed by living in a multiracial society.”

Morgan seems exhausted recalling such criticism. “It’s a no win,” he says. But when I ask him about the role violent crime plays in the show, and if he thinks it’s contributed to a perception skillfully exploited by someone like Donald Trump, he concedes the first point. “Anything that’s a fight, anything that’s exciting,” he says, “that will be overrepresented, for sure.” He pauses when we get to Trump. “I think people know that ‘Cops’ is an entertainment product,” he says. “I think that audiences are fairly smart.”

***

I wonder what cops who’ve been involved in the show think of this, so I call Steve Dye, who’s been a police officer for 33 years and has spent the last six as chief in Grand Prairie, a Dallas suburb of nearly 200,000. Dye is progressive-minded, someone who talks about rooting out implicit bias and the benefits of community policing. He is a proponent of “partnering with available community stakeholders,” he tells me, to help solve the long-term problems that his officers regularly encounter—unemployment, mental illness, poverty, poor parenting. If one of his officers makes a mistake, he adds, those partnerships will prevent the kind of cascading anger that occurred in Ferguson. “If we’ve built equity ahead of time through trust and being legitimate and treating everyone with dignity and respect,” he says, “I’m confident the community leaders will allow me to hit the pause button.”

Part of the show’s last season was filmed in Grand Prairie, and Dye was impressed with how the episodes had emphasized his officers’ professionalism. He acknowledges that the high-octane “enforcement” sequences that have come to define the show are relatively rare events in an officer’s career. “We spend the majority of our time helping people with quality-of-life problems,” he says. Dye wishes the show focused less on cops-as-commandos and more on cops-as-community stewards.

I’m skeptical that these competing portraits could coexist, or that the latter could exist at all on a show where propulsive action and a tightly constructed plot are central features. But I’m curious how a department run by someone like Dye, who advocates for the kind of policing that Haberfeld says has translated into little more than rhetoric, appears on screen.

So I watch. In one scene, an officer explains that he’s trying to pull over a truck with a broken headlight. The truck hightails it, and the officer gives chase. The driver, who eventually bails on foot and into an apartment building stairwell, is tased, cuffed, and arrested. Another scene also yields a high-speed pursuit and a handcuffed suspect. Then, a clip that seems like it might necessitate those partnerships.

It begins when a white cop runs a random license plate check on a silver sedan. Behind the wheel, he finds a young black man with no insurance and three outstanding traffic tickets. Initially, the driver, who has sleek glasses and a long goatee, compliantly answers the officer’s questions. He’d already been to jail over the tickets, which is why he had no license and no insurance, and he has a pending court date on the matter. But the encounter quickly escalates after the officer, a ruddy redhead with a large chin and a slight twang named Lance LyBrand, checks the driver’s arrest history and finds a long one—assault on a public servant, evading arrest, aggravated robbery and possession of marijuana, among others.

“He’s got three warrants out of Grand Prairie,” LyBrand tells a second officer. “He’s got a lengthy criminal history. Just about everything you can dream up he’s done it.” So LyBrand asks for some help, then the two officers march back to the sedan. “You’re under arrest,” LyBrand tells the driver flatly.

The driver briefly looks at the officer, but then carries on a phone conversation in which he’s detailing where he is and his current status. LyBrand opens the door and orders him out. Then he orders him out again—and again. But there’s a problem with the phone call: the person on the other end of the line doesn’t seem to hear the details, so the driver repeats himself. Eventually, he removes his seatbelt and begins to climb out of the driver’s side door. But LyBrand is done waiting. He reaches inside in the car, as if to yank the driver out.

“I’m not gonna’ tell you again,” he says. “Step out.”

The driver’s mood instantly changes: “I just got tickets, man. Goddamn. Y’all not finna’ shoot a nigga’ or nothing like that. I just got tickets.” The officers wrap his wrists in steel bracelets and walk him toward LyBrand’s SUV. The driver asks for his phone, his lighter, his keys. The officers refuse and order him into the backseat. He struggles to tell them something, then tries to lunge for his car. “Look, take the keys out of the ignition of the car,” he pleads. They struggle to force him into the SUV’s back seat, but he eventually complies. Then, after catching his breath, he says: “I’m not trying to give no one a hard time.”

“Yes, you are,” LyBrand shoots back. “You’ve already accomplished that.”

The segment carries on like this for another few minutes, with the driver getting increasingly agitated inside the SUV. He shrieks for help, he begs for the window to be rolled down, he kicks at a door, he ends up in shackles.

“Why you treating me like this?” he shouts at one point.

“You made your own bed,” the unidentified officer assisting LyBrand replies. “You didn’t pay your tickets. Now you gotta’ go to jail.”

To me, the driver’s question seems like a fair one, and the officer’s answer isn’t all that satisfactory. It’s true the driver didn’t comply with his orders. But if one of the goals of community policing is to de-escalate, to treat everyone with dignity and respect—I’m not sure I saw a whole lot of that. Why didn’t LyBrand try to establish even a hint of a rapport? Why didn’t he just let the driver finish his phone call? Why couldn’t he have explained why the driver’s stuff, at least for the moment, was no longer his? It’s true his criminal history was deep—although as a viewer I was offered no insight as to how old those charges were or if he was even convicted of them—but it’s not like he was yammering on with a girlfriend. Clearly, he was letting someone know where he was going and where his car was.

But perhaps this is just my bias. Perhaps this is a great example of the police preventing a situation that quickly could have spun out of control, that could have wound up like Ferguson, like North Charleston, like Staten Island. So I ask Haberfeld, who specializes in police training, if this is good or bad police work, the kind that Dye advocates. She asks for a disclaimer—she has no other knowledge of the arrest beyond what was contained in the roughly seven-minute clip—and then she agrees: No, it’s not good police work—but not at all for the reasons I suggest.

In her view, LyBrand and his fellow officer let the driver control the situation. “I don’t think police officers are paid well enough to endure this type of abuse,” she says. “I’m not saying they had to use more force. But they were a little bit—they probably behaved this way because they were on camera. They were too laid back.” Effective police work, Haberfeld says, is about compliance, and the moment the driver didn’t comply, the officers should have acted, regardless of the minor violations he’d been pulled over for. “Things can go wrong in a split second,” she says. “People have to understand, when they’re asked to comply, they should comply. If they feel they were mistreated, hire a lawyer later on.”

I’m not sure this is the guiding principle I want at my local police department, but I wonder what the people at “Cops” think. Does the clip betray the “subversive cues” that Morgan mentioned—cues that would lead viewers to consider how petty crimes can lead to a far more lasting encounter with the criminal justice system? Before asking, I type Lance LyBrand’s name into Google, and find a play-by-play “bonus content” interview posted to the “Cops” website. At roughly four minutes, LyBrand walks viewers through what happened, recounting how laborious the stop was, how the driver refused to do anything he said. To me, the interview reveals little more than the bad guy-as-a-relentless-menace storyline—a storyline that “Cops” chose to amplify. But in case that wasn’t clear, the clip ends with this: “I think we got a bad guy off the street,” LyBrand says. “He’s in jail, and that’s where he needs to be.”

***

Tim Stelloh is a reporter with NBC News. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The New Republic and elsewhere.

Published in partnership with The Marshall Project.

Editor: Geraldine Sealey
Art & multimedia: Celina Fang
Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross