Bad Boys, Bad Boys: Put an end to the show COPS
Here's the message we sent to our members. After you’ve read it, please add your voice.
Dear ColorOfChange.org member,
Twenty-five years ago, George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad1 and the media frenzy surrounding the crack epidemic2 combined to put a definitively Black face on the "War on Crime." When brand-new TV network FOX was faced with a writers’ strike, owner Rupert Murdoch bet on an unscripted, super low-budget pilot3 that tapped into white audiences’ fears and preconceptions of Black criminality. The "reality" show COPS was born — and over the ensuing decades, the trendsetting series has radically altered what we see on TV.4
Today, the COPS formula — which relies heavily on degradation and mockery of suspects, presumption of guilt, and audience identification with unfailingly “good guy” police protagonists — hasn’t changed a bit, despite a marked, bipartisan shift away from broken “tough on crime” policies in recent years.5 The show’s creator himself admits that COPS’ singular focus on making arrests, particularly for nonviolent drug offenses, wastes scarce public resources and contributes to massive overincarceration.6
While we can only imagine what might have been had COPS never made it to air in the ’80s, we can take action today to ensure that this relic is finally dropped from FOX’s lineup, by letting its advertisers know we demand an end to these distorted, dehumanizing portrayals that exploit and endanger our communities. FOX programming executives will be meeting shortly to determine whether to renew the show for another season, and they need to hear from you.
For years, media corporations like FOX and the producers of COPS have built a profit model around the fiction of so-called “reality” television. Although marketed as unbiased, COPS actually offers a highly filtered version of crime and the criminal justice system — a “reality” where the police are always competent, crime-solving heroes and where the bad boys always get caught.7
When COPS launched in 1989, it quickly came under criticism for its intentional focus on Black and Latino neighborhoods and its highly selective portrayal of race. Content analysis performed in the mid-nineties revealed that "reality" crime programs like COPS tend to over-represent whites as police officers and under-represent Blacks and Latinos as authority figures, while also under-representing whites and over-representing people of color as criminals. In addition, with producers dependent upon the voluntary cooperation and approval of police departments, footage that casts officers in a negative light — including recorded portrayals of overtly racist behavior — never air.8
Instead, viewers tune in weekly to "ride along" with police and root against a rotating cast of nameless — sometimes faceless — street crime suspects.9 With such a narrow range of Black characters and personalities in primetime, the negative perceptions and distorted images presented by shows like COPS create an atmosphere of suspicion that desensitizes and conditions audiences to view harsher punishments and police misconduct — including police brutality and unconstitutional searches — as acceptable.10 Research shows that these images linger in the subconscious of viewers, creating "unconscious attitudes" and "implicit biases" about both race and class.11
According to researchers, repeated, distorted media representations "create attitudinal effects ranging from general antagonism towards [B]lack men and boys, to higher tolerance for race-based socioeconomic disparities...and public support for punitive approaches to problems."12 Against the real-world backdrop of an American culture that views young men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Russell Davis with suspicion — and "places like New York, where there were 700,000 incidents of 'stop and frisk' by police officers in 2011 alone, most of them targeting Black and Hispanic males" — the stakes couldn't be higher.13
Down from 45 episodes in prior years, FOX ordered just 16 episodes of COPS this season, regularly preempting the "reality" series with sports programming that is more attractive to advertisers. Adding your voice to this campaign will help us push these companies to do the right thing and drop COPS for good. Together we can put industry decisionmakers on notice that continuing to invest in programming that exploits our communities will hurt their reputation with consumers, and send a broader message to Hollywood and producers of reality programming that we expect better.
Thanks and Peace,
--Rashad, Arisha, Matt, Aimée, Kim, Fanna and the rest of the ColorOfChange.org team
March 11th, 2014
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1. “Two Political Ads Share More Than Fame and Controversy,” Washington Post, 09-07-04
2. “The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste,” Huffington Post, 03-08-10
3. “Bad Boys=Big Money,” Broadcasting & Cable, 07-31-05
4. “Squad Cars, Sirens and Gangs, and the Cameras That Love Them,” New York Times, 01-16-11
5. “State budget crises push sentencing reforms,” Associated Press, 04-02-11
6. “Like the 10 O’Clock News, ‘Cops’ Endures,” New York Times, 09-09-07
7. "How television influences social institutions: the case of policing and criminal justice," Aaron Doyle, 10-01-00
8. See reference 7.
9. See reference 7.
10. "'COPS' at 25: The popular reality series confronts an 'uncertain and problematic' future," The American Conservative, 01-15-13
11. "Opportunity for Black Men and Boys: Public Opinion, Media Depictions, and Media Consumption" (.pdf), The Opportunity Agenda, 10-01-11
12. See reference 11.
13. See reference 10.