When "Cops" made its national TV debut in 1989, the U.S. was beginning a seismic clash in discourse regarding the role of law enforcement as technology began to capture the extent police had long used violent tactics on non-white citizens.
"Cops" provided a PR arm for agencies around the country, making harsh policing seem acceptable and even cool to viewers who had the privilege of never worrying about how police might treat them. It offered a sport-like version of reality in which law enforcement was always good and the arrested always deserved what they got. It served up a dreamland that never existed.
In 1991, two years after the show premiered, four white Los Angeles police officers brutally beat a helpless Rodney King with clubs. In 2003, 14 years after the show premiered, New York City police officers caused an unarmed Alberta Spruill to have a heart attack when they burst into her apartment and threw a concussion grenade. In 2009, 20 years after the show premiered, a white BART police officer shot and killed an unarmed Oscar Grant at point-blank range at a train station in Oakland, Calif. Since then, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner have been among a host of unarmed black people to die at the hands of police.
All the while, during its three decades of run time, tens of millions of people tuned in to watch the fun-and-games world portrayed by "Cops," where departments presumably handpicked which footage could be used to place them in a positive light. Similar shows such as "Live PD" were also created to significant fanfare.
This week, Paramount Network canceled "Cops" and A&E put "Live PD" on hold amid the fallout of another widely publicized police incident — the death of George Floyd under the weight of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Despite the long-overdue reckoning for these reality TV shows, though, their legacy of making law enforcement into sport to a wide swath of the American public could continue to negatively influence the generations that grew up watching them.
The standard, bread-and-butter scenes of "Cops" were the chase and the crushing takedown, oftentimes (especially in older episodes) followed by firearms pointed at already pinned suspects. The more intense a skirmish, the better. Officers were given the narrative appeal of your favorite middle linebacker.
A look at the official "Cops" website and YouTube page provides a further perspective into how closely producers attempted to mirror the show after the sports coverage playbook. There are athlete-like profiles of "top cops" with individual highlights. There's a video category on YouTube called "toughest takedowns" and another labeled "fists & cuffs." There's a Hall of Fame.
Aside from the heroic aura "Cops" sought out for its subjects, and the dehumanization of the people taken into custody on the show, there have been well-documented ethical concerns about the types of people it disproportionately targeted as well as the information it omitted.
All of this contributed to a cultural duality where cops are revered as infallible in some circles despite individual officers being consistently caught on camera abusing their positions at the cost of human lives.
As largely peaceful protests against police brutality continue around the U.S. this week, the residue of three decades of concentrated conflation between law enforcement and sport-like entertainment will spring from those opposed to the growing movement for criminal justice change. The show might be gone, but the mindset it reinforced is certainly still alive.