I just finished reading Alyssa Rosenberg’s terrific five-part Washington Post series, “Dragnets, Dirty Harrys, and Dying Hard: 100 Years Of The Police In Pop Culture.” In it, she quotes many of the people who have told stories about police officers in movies and on TV, from Jack Webb to Joseph Wambaugh to David Simon. She discusses the relationships between entertainment producers and police departments, from the cooperation evident in early series to the conflicted characters in more recent works that police officials didn’t like so much.
She also talks about one TV show about police that’s been on the air longer than any other:
The formula for “Cops,” a reality show now in its third decade, is simple: Producers ride along with police officers and film as they respond to complaints and then pursue, arrest and process suspects. The show is often astonishingly boring: Watching officers conduct traffic stops or small-time drug arrests to break the monotony of patrol is a testament to the gap between fictional policing and the mundane truth of the actual work.
The devious genius of “Cops” is that while the show is staged by police departments, the people the police arrest sign off on their own depictions as lying, luckless incompetents who climb drunk out of car windows, try to eat large quantities of marijuana and even get stopped biking under the influence. The police get the opportunity to present themselves as dedicated and sympathetic, conducting patient questioning and offering help with drug treatment. And their targets acquiesce in the show’s depiction of their own worst moments: Creator John Langley has said that once the show took off, as many as 90 percent of those arrested on camera signed releases so that their unblurred faces could appear on screen.
That last part is remarkable — these people who gave the producers permission to use their faces because it meant being on TV, and in America, that’s still the highest status you can achieve, even if it’s at one of the lowest moments of your life.
A similar show has just launched on A&E called “Live PD,” a weekly two-hour series that will show six police departments in action in real time. Like “Cops,” it will consist of camera crews embedded with officers as they go on patrol in different US cities. The difference is that this show will air live, which means there’s a lot of potential for boring television when nothing of interest is happening with any of those police officers on duty.
I’m reminded of an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in which Mary thinks it would be good TV to put a cameraman in a patrol car with a cop to capture the excitement of a live police encounter on film. Unfortunately, nothing happens on the first night. Or the second. Or the third. Because, just as Rosenberg described most “Cops” episodes, that’s what policing is like — it isn’t full of shootouts and chases and crook-catching. It’s mostly driving around, answering mundane calls that don’t make for good television. That’s why each episode of “Cops” requires so many days of filming to end up with a single hour of usable footage.
But our perception of police work is framed more by the fiction that fills our screens, which leaves out the vast majority of the boring day-to-day business and concentrates on action and over-the-top characters.