COPS: Reality TV, the War on Drugs and Michel Foucault

by Sophia Harvey

The opening montage to the show COPS is a series of obscured shots depicting heroic law enforcement officials, rowdy crack heads, an abandoned baby crying, even a fire. The montage then fades into the now iconic “COPS” title, pulsating to the beat of their theme song which poses the question, “Bad boys, bad boys, whachya gonna do? Whachya gonna do when they come for you?” Up next comes an omniscient voice with the ever reassuring, “all suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” Reality television at its best.


Now in its twenty-fifth season, COPS is a show based around the pursuit and arrest of “criminals.” The most recent episode was composed of three vignettes featuring an alleged African American prostitute, a car full of Hispanic parolees, and a Latino kid on the run from a stolen vehicle. Anyone can see that these shows are contrived, but a more critical eye will discover a meticulously constructed endorsement of racial profiling. COPS, and shows like it, plays off of a societally perpetuated dynamic of the “All American” hero type protecting the community from “dangerous” black and Hispanic criminals. In order to make these shows compelling, teams of producers work together to create the most sensationalized versions of the “reality” they are portraying, thus catering to the audience’s imagination far more than their sense of true justice.

This is not a new tactic. In his work, Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes a history of public torture in 18th century France that employs a similar “shock factor” to today’s media. Foucault claims “the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle,” exactly the kind of gruesome ritual he first describes, and explains that punishment becomes “hidden” in the 19th century, allowing the concept of punishment to enter the “domain of abstract consciousness; its effectiveness is seen as resulting from its inevitability, not from its visible intensity” (7-9).

It is interesting then, that COPS focuses on the very moment a suspect is caught. There is no investigation and no follow-up, just vignette after vignette of pulse-amping criminal catching. This creates an air of suspense in regards to the “justice” that will follow, i.e. the hidden penal system. But it does not do away with “spectacle” by any means. By focusing on this moment of arrest, by televising and sensationalizing this moment, a moment before any conviction has been made, the suspect is publicly criminalized. No matter what that person has done or not done, they are branded as a criminal through the construction of the show.

In Michel Meranze’s Laboratories of Virtue, he also discusses the move from public to private punishment. Hitting the nail on the head, he says, “distancing punishment from its display would displace the medium of terror from public visibility to private imagination” (132). The makers of COPS love our imagination; in fact, the popularity of their show depends on it. What will happen to these criminals? All we know is we’re glad they’re off the streets!

The concept of “focusing on crime” and the “hero dynamic” has been a platform from which to subtly promote racism for a long time. Michelle Alexander discusses the role of media in this promotion in her book, The New Jim Crow. Specifically, Alexander talks about The War on Drugs, citing George Bush Sr.’s infamous Willie Horton ad in which “a dark-skinned black man, a convicted murderer who escaped while on a work furlough and then raped and murdered a white woman in her home.” The ad was used to undermine Bush’s opponent for approving of the furlough program and it was highly effective. Why? Because it was sensationalized. Instead of focusing on the horrors of what happens in prison to keep people scared, the media magnified the horrors of the crime committed to get people to rally for more imprisonment. It’s really about brilliant advertising.

Through storytelling in the guise of reality, COPS has managed to perpetuate this idea. The show focuses on penalizing minority groups in poor areas because of a stereotype that exists and will continue to exist as long as these shows are around. Using tactics such as fast cutting, hand held camera, and base-y music (filmmaking tactics generally reserved for horror flicks), the creators fabricate an exhilarating plotline – will the heroes catch the bad guys (or should I say bad boys)? It sells because of a predominantly white male audience that is scared of the unknown prison system, can identify with the buddy-buddy cops, is horrified by the alleged crimes, and more than anything, is glad it’s not them being targeted.