Day 6

Running from Cops: How a decades-old reality TV show distorted America's view of policing

For three decades, the ubiquitous reality TV show Cops has been shaping public perceptions of policing in America. Now a new investigative podcast digs into the show's penchant for stretching the truth and the costs of that deception.

'It's nowhere near as real as they would have you believe,' says podcast host Dan Taberski

Dan Taberski, best known for the podcast Missing Richard Simmons, is the host and a producer of Headlong's season three series, Running From Cops. (Pineapple Street Media/Sunshine Sachs)

If you had asked former reality TV producer Dan Taberski what he thought of Cops two years ago, he probably would've called it "problematic, but compelling" television. But he's far more critical now. 

Taberski spent more than a year analyzing 846 episodes of the long-running show and interviewing its former subjects for his new podcast, Running From Cops. Their data was cross-referenced with U.S. crime statistics.

Although Cops follows real police officers and their interactions with the public, he says his deep dive into the show's 30-season history revealed "it's nowhere near as real as they would have you believe."

Show producers, for example, give police forces editorial control over what gets aired in exchange for access, says Taberski. The end result: law enforcement can seemingly veto any footage they don't like — and keep what they want.

"It portrays a world that's much scarier," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "It portrays policing that is much more effective."

In one Cops episode featured on the podcast, a police officer tases a suspect in the back as he tries to flee. What the show doesn't make clear, Taberski points out, is that the officer's actions go against the department's use of force policies.

"I suspect that it is a way of normalizing a certain type of policing," he said, noting there was no sign the suspect was armed or threatening the officers during the arrest. 

"But it's not portrayed as bad policing. It's not portrayed as something he shouldn't have done. It's portrayed as a job well done," he continued.

Good guys

Drug busts, for example, make up 35 per cent of all arrests on Cops — three times the rate of illicit drug arrests in the U.S., according to Taberski.

This phenomenon portrays police as "aggressive," he says, and perpetuates a clear narrative about who the good and bad guys are.

Based on their analysis of the show's 30-season run, Taberski says the number of arrests per episode has increased.

In 1990, 61 per cent of police interactions on the show ended in arrest. By 2017 that number had jumped to 95 per cent — a stark reality he says is "light years" ahead of the real number of arrests by law enforcement officials.

It portrays policing that is much more effective.​​​​​​- Dan Taberski,  Running from Cops  host

Taberski told Day 6 that some police forces have even invited Cops to film alongside their officers to mend a tarnished image. What it comes down to is a desire for cops to be seen as the good guys, he says.

"There is a big appetite in [the U.S.] to see police portrayed in a very positive way, especially after the Black Lives Matter movement."

Cops gives credence to the idea that Blue Lives Matter too, Taberski explains.

Focus on marginalized people

While Cops seemingly nudges the narrative that law enforcement protects citizens they are charged to serve, the show also emphasizes the crimes of people of colour, he says.

The number of black and brown suspects arrested on Cops is comparable to every day arrests, Taberski explains in the podcast. But he notes the show "front loads crime by people of colour."

Forty-eight per cent of the arrests involving people of colour happen before the first commercial break, according to his data. For white people, it's only 29 per cent.

Consent required

In order to be shown on Cops, an unwitting suspect is required to provide consent.

"The producers of Cops have said to me, and said in many other interviews, that people sign releases willingly because they want to be reality show famous — even if it's Cops famous," he said. 

Taberski spoke to nine people featured on Cops and said most told him they never gave the show permission to use their clips. 

"All but one [said] they either didn't sign a release, they were too drunk or high to know what they were doing or that they were coerced by producers and police working together to get them to sign," he said.

One man even alleged he was handcuffed to a bench for hours until he signed. Another woman claimed she was denied jail bond until she signed.

"Most people who sign do so fully cognizant of what they're doing," Cops producer John Langley tells Taberski in the podcast. "You've gotta talk people into it. You've got to persuade them. Any producer worth their salt knows that."

Despite its controversies, Cops has survived 31 seasons. And with no signs of slowing down, looks like it has more to go.

"As long as there are police departments that are willing to participate in the show — that are looking for a good way to have a clean, pro-police narrative that they can control ... I think the show Cops will continue," Taberski said.

To hear the full interview with Dan Taberski, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.


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