As an 80s kid, Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys” got me pumped for the high-speed chases, kicked-in doors, and perp tackles that was “Cops.” I was ambivalent about actual police, but the energy of the show was undeniable.
I stopped watching after a few seasons. Could have been the sad cycle of perp choices, the culture of punishment, the schadenfreude—not sure.
Now “Cops” is canceled after 32 seasons. Outrage over police brutality sparked by the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor pressured the Paramount Network to axe the show. A&E’s “Live PD,” the spiritual successor to Cops, has also been canceled amid nationwide protests against police brutality and the filmed death of Javier Ambler, who died in police custody after being handcuffed and repeatedly tased even though he did not assault or threaten deputies, according to a death-in-custody report filed with the Texas attorney general’s office.
Offscreen cops might be canceled as well. Some people want to disband police forces all together. Others want to reallocate funds to services and programs that will help marginalized communities, or route some 911 calls to social workers and paramedics instead of involving police, or have officers issue citations for minor infractions instead of defaulting to arrests. The first solution seems precarious, though, not impossible. The others could be effective with the right funding and training. Another proposed solution is to nationalize policing standards, but with over 18,000 police departments in the United States, a one-size-fits-all approach may not be ideal.
Whatever the solution, a social paradigm shift must also occur. The way people of color have been historically treated in this country is evidence enough. Born out of vigilante slave patrols in the South, which gave way to the Jim Crow laws of late 19th and early 20th centuries, policing was only about protecting and serving the social construct of whiteness. That type of culture rarely dismantles itself.
While I’ve never been brutalized by the police, I have been seen as the proverbial “bad boy” for simply existing. For example, I walked into an Oakland convenience store several years back to ask for directions and, upon seeing me at the counter, a police officer asked the store clerk “Was it a brown-skinned man with curly red hair, wearing a black t-shirt?” The clerk looked at me and then scowled in confusion at the cop, “No, it wasn’t him.” It took a moment to realize what had happened, but my life could have taken a drastic downturn in that moment for no good reason, especially if whatever crime occurred was violent.
Cancelling shows such as “Cops” and “Live PD” may seem like insignificant network maneuvers that won’t reverse generations of problematic imagery and storytelling, but the only way to avoid death by 1000 cuts is to stop the cutting. These shows promote reality, but are basically televised police dramas with editors, producers, and protagonists with veto power.
With the advent of smart phones and social media, however, the public has been given a more brutal version of “Cops.” Hopefully, this version doesn’t take 32 years to get canceled.