Airing in the United States from 1989 through 2020 and continuing to air internationally, the Fox (and later Spike TV) television show COPS was an early and prophetically successful prototype for “Reality TV.” The thirty-minute episodes followed a strict format, where camera operators would “ride along” with police officers in cities across the country (and eventually the world), giving viewers intimate and often jarring experiences as chases occur, fights are fought, and arrests are made. The sensational approach has been heavily criticized for the way it reinforced racialized stereotypes of criminal identity and behavior at the same time that it generally (though not uniformly) lionized the police, with whose perspective the viewer, on the other side of the camera, was set up to identify. As a result of the escalation of this criticism following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, Spike TV ended the US run of the show in June of that same year.
The lyrics quoted here are drawn from “Bad Boys” by Inner Circle (written by Ian Lewis and released in 1987 on the album One Way), which served as the theme song for the series and became closely identified with it over its thirty-two season run. Though the original song was directed toward would-be criminals with a nominally reformist message, with its conversion into theme song the directors exploit a potential ambiguity—are the “bad boys” the criminals, or are they the cops?—as they invite viewers to experience the ostensible thrill of police work. This slippage was reflected in the 1995 film Bad Boys, which centered two police officers as the unquestioned “bad boys,” and featured the tagline “Whatcha gonna do?”
COPS, alongside a growing number of fictional police dramas on television and film, reinforced prevailing narratives that validated fear of certain populations, often populations of color, by other, often white populations. It situated these narratives primarily in urban spaces, asking its many viewers to consider their surroundings primarily from the perspective of a police officer. And it asserted that the best remedy was increased surveillance and persistent aggression—remedies subsequently reflected in the design of the spaces themselves.
Note: Though all categories are far from “complete,” the sources originally selected by the Buell Center research team and comprising the category of “Arts & Culture” deserve particular acknowledgement as such. Many songs were drawn from Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists, by Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, and Jeff Mao (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999). Limited by time and individual expertise, the Center’s hope was always that subsequent contributors might build out all categories (and add their own)—“Arts & Culture” especially.
Curry, Kathleen (Dept. of Sociology & Criminal Justice, University of Delaware), “Mediating COPS: An analysis of viewer reaction to reality TV,” Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 8(3) (2001) pp.169–185.
Gilbert, Sophie, “The Unreality of COPS,” June 13, 2020, The Atlantic, theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/06/cops-was-reality-show-cherry-picked-reality/613012.
Dan Taberski, “Running from COPS,” April–May, 2019, topic.com/runningfromcops.
Rosenberg, Howard, “High Court Gives Series a Dose of Reality,” May 26, 1999, Los Angeles Times, latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1999-may-26-ca-40966-story.html.