Following an abrupt shelving of new episodes in the wake of worldwide protests against police brutality, Paramount Network announced this week that it’s canceling Cops, the long-running reality show that voyeuristically embedded viewers in “everyday policing” since 1989. The newer and significantly more popular Live PD on A&E officially met the same cancellation fate yesterday.
Both shows have long been subject to significant criticism over their glorification of police officers, distortion of realities surrounding American policing, and ethically questionable relationships with law enforcement. Most recently, these controversies were the subject of a spectacular podcast, Running From Cops, which embarked on a robust investigation into the rise, legacy, and dubious nature of Cops and copycat shows like Live PD.
Vulture recently spoke with Running From Cops host Dan Taberski and producer Henry Molosfky about the end of Cops and Live PD, the significance of their cancellations, and the legacies they leave behind.
For those who haven’t listened to Running From Cops, what were your major findings on why shows like Cops and Live PD are so troubling?
Dan Taberski: For Cops, we spent 18 months going over 876 episodes and doing a huge data analysis on what it’s showing viewers, so this isn’t an opinion. These are facts. It presents a world that’s much more violent than it actually is. It presents police departments to be much more successful than they really are. It misrepresents crime by people of color. We also found that it coerces the people to be on the show by either forcing them to sign releases when they didn’t want to or by getting them to sign releases when they are drunk or high, which are states by which they have no business signing a legal document. There are also instances of the show putting people on the air without any sign-off whatsoever, which is what several people told us. But perhaps the biggest problem is that the cops control the message. With Cops, it’s contractually stipulated that the police departments can change anything they want in the show. It’s literally propaganda when it gets to that level.
It’s a similar situation with Live PD. The success of Live PD depends 100 percent on the participation of the police departments that are on it. This is not a situation where the show goes to the police for information and then leaves and says whatever they want about it. They’re making the police officers in these departments celebrities. And you can’t piss off the celebrities on your show. They can’t present anything potentially bad at these police departments, because then they won’t want to participate. So it becomes this endless cycle of having to present the police in a certain way for financial and ratings reasons, even if it’s not true.
How significant is the fact that Cops has been pulled off the air?
Taberski: It’s enormous. Cops has been around for 31 years. It’s the longest-running reality TV show ever, and it’s arguably the first reality show ever. The show launched in 1989, right when the War on Drugs began and kicked off a whole era of policing. Really violent tactics, overmilitarized policing, busting people for low-level drug offenses, and filling prisons with black and brown people along with poor white people: Cops helped sell all that to the American people. The fact it’s now canceled is huge.
Henry Molofsky: There had been slight reckonings with Cops at various points over the last 31 years. There was some uptick of criticism around the beginning of Black Lives Matter, and I think a campaign by Color of Change contributed to the show being taken off Fox. [Note: Fox, the original network behind Cops, canceled the program in 2013, but it was quickly picked up by Spike TV, which later became Paramount Network.] But it’s telling that it was in this current moment, after 31 years, where it seems we’re seeing it canceled permanently.
Taberski: I suppose, theoretically, somebody else could technically pick them up. Then again, it’s hard to get lower on the totem pole than Paramount Network in terms of cable channels, so that would be a surprise.
The cancellation of Live PD feels a little different. What did you think when you heard that A&E was canceling it?
Taberski: It’s a huge moneymaker for the network. That network is built around Live PD. That one show is on six hours a week, but at last count — and you have to keep count because the number keeps going up — Live PD has six spin-offs. For A&E, this situation is so much more than about policing. It’s about an ATM that’s been shooting money out at them. So the bar’s a lot higher to get them to cancel it.
A&E’s statement announcing the Live PD cancellation still points toward a possible way forward for the franchise: “We will determine if there is a clear pathway to tell the stories of both the community and the police officers whose role it is to serve them.” Seems equally troubling.
Taberski: That’s them leaving the door open to “maybe we can still squeeze a LITTLE bit more money out of this thing?” They have zero legitimacy to claim Live PD was ever about “the community.” There will always be a need for documentary examinations of policing. Live PD ain’t that. Live PD is allowing our police to turn their job into entertainment. I hope the time for that is done and that we look back on it and groan that we ever allowed it to happen.
Cops and Live PD have been the subject of critique for quite some time now. What made this moment different?
Taberski: I think up until now, it’s been a situation where if you don’t watch these shows, you just don’t pay attention to them. The New York Times doesn’t really write about Live PD at all. Same deal with Cops. A lot of people don’t even know Cops was still on the air, because it wasn’t appealing to them. And the people for whom Cops and Live PD appeal to—the people whose minds these shows are molding in terms of what police can and cannot do—those people are watching voraciously. That was a high bar for us to get over when we were releasing the podcast. Because if you don’t watch Cops, you don’t watch Cops, and you just don’t care. Now I think everybody’s more aware of how these kinds of shows can affect things.
Molofsky: Yeah, I feel like something’s been unleashed over the past couple of weeks that’s been around for a long time. Now it’s just so collective. Just the idea that if you’re neutral, you’re complicit in this state-sanctioned, racist violence — it’s the power of a mass movement.
When you were digging into the history of Cops, do you recall if the 1992 Los Angeles riots affected the public reception of the show?
Molofsky: The critical reception to the show in the early ’90s was very positive. It viewed Cops as being very realistic, a new way to view policing in a “close-up way.” And Cops was nominated for Emmys in 1989, ’90, ’93, and ’94 — both before and after the L.A. riots. But Cops was also a very different show back then. Another thing we found is that Cops grew to become more formulaic over the last 31 years. There are more arrests, more car chases. It gradually came to show cops as being more effective.
How do you think we’re going to look back at these cancellations? Do you think they symbolize anything about this moment?
Taberski: Canceling shows like Cops and Live PD is the bare minimum of what needs to be done. The rest is the real hard work.
Molofsky: There’s a world where it’s not just that these shows get canceled, but we also remove all kinds of influences that are subtly or not subtly teaching police officers how to act in ways that are just not right. I don’t know if that will be the case.
Taberski: We talked about this in the podcast. We heard over and over again how many cops who were on Cops talk about the fact they wanted to become cops because of Cops. There’s an endless cycle of police officers acting like the way police officers on Cops act, which is not how they’re supposed to be acting. Once Cops is off the air for ten, 20 years, it will be interesting to see if policing — or what replaces policing — can not keep repeating the same crappy cycle.