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Cops on TV: The reality show 'COPS' is 'the best recruiting tool for policing ever'

A "COPS" crew on location with police officers.
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This segment is part of The Frame's #CopsOnTV series about how police are portrayed in both scripted and unscripted television, and how TV can impact the public’s perception of law enforcement. Listen to our previous segments on this topic here

Today, we hear more about the long running reality TV series, “COPS.” Created by John Langley, the show debuted in 1989 and spent 25 years on Fox before moving to the Spike cable network four years ago.

Yesterday, we heard about the history and the backstory of the creation of the show, but there’s still a lot more about “COPS” to cover.

The father-and-son team of John and Morgan Langley (who is an executive producer on the show) and retired Las Vegas Police sergeant Randy Sutton, who appeared on several episodes of "COPS," spoke on The Frame about the impact the show has on viewers.

Interview Highlights:

On whether it's difficult to get people to sign release forms to appear on "COPS":

MORGAN LANGLEY: It's the Andy Warhol thing: Everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame. People sign up and they sign up enthusiastically.

JOHN LANGLEY: It's au contraire. We have people that say, Get that news camera away from me! We say, We're not with the news, we're the "COPS" TV show. They go, Oh! Cool! My cousin was on the show last season. I'm not kidding you. That has happened on many occasions. We've had guys that have been on the show more than once. We had one guy in Las Vegas who stole a car. Two years later, the same guy is arrested for the same offense and he has the same excuses. And he talks to the cop ... I think it was a different cop. It shows the recidivism issues in crime. Most crimes [are] committed by [a small] percentage of people [who] commit the same crimes over and over again.

MORGAN LANGLEY: Yeah. We had one guy in two different states. 

JOHN LANGLEY: Yeah. [He] was arrested in Alaska and then ended up in Tennessee! I mean, these are the repeating cast members I guess. 

Retired Las Vegas Police sergeant Randy Sutton on how the show impacted him personally:

Being on "COPS" altered my life. It literally had a profound effect on my life in ways that I had never expected — some very poignant ways I might add. First and foremost, it's how my film career started — if you want to call it a film career. I was approached about doing the movie "Casino" based on somebody seeing me on "COPS." It is absolutely a very powerful show. I've had no less than 50 police officers tell me that the reason they became a cop was because they saw me on the show and they said, That's what I want to do. It's the best recruiting tool for policing ever.

John Langley on which cities' police departments won't allow "COPS" to shoot:

One is Chicago and the other is Honolulu. The Hawaiian visitors bureau wouldn't allow us. They had tourism concerns. We pointed out that we filmed in Las Vegas a great deal and it doesn't seem to have altered any tourist activity whatsoever. The issue with Chicago is it's a cultural issue. I think the department itself is just so opposed to any kind of transparent scrutiny. That's my opinion. I'm not dissing Chicago, that's just the fact of the matter. My argument to departments is always, If you want to be a transparent department, why shouldn't we film with you? 

John Langley on what viewers can learn by watching episodes of "COPS":

I've often said that we don't want to editorialize. I don't want to be inserted in the show. I want to watch what happens as purely as I can see it. Frankly, I'm all for legalizing pot and always have been. I've never hidden from that or even with my police officer friends, I tell them the same thing. We disagree about it many times. And some do agree with me. It's not about my politics, it's about what goes on in the world and are we trying to give an accurate representation of it. You draw your own conclusions about our laws. If you watch the show, you can see laws that aren't working. Many officers know that certain laws don't work and maybe don't require the attention — and I'm talking mostly about drug laws — various and sundry iterations of drug laws.

On whether the show reinforces stereotypes:

JOHN LANGLEY: Well, I think the stereotype is that if you're dealing with crime and punishment, you're going to be dealing with the people that are involved with crime and punishment for whatever reason. Now, it's no secret that the majority of crime takes place in disenfranchised areas and ghettos. That's just a fact and always has been a fact. It's an economic issue among other things, not just a cultural issue. You're going to see people where the have-nots are going to commit more crimes than the haves. That's just a fact no matter where you are in the world. We're not consciously seeking to stigmatize any group or any culture. We're only doing an observation of street crime, not white collar crime. God knows I'd love to do that. But in order to show the misdeeds of Wall Street, I would require a computer degree from MIT and then it would be very difficult to explain to the average viewer what the hell is going on and how they're getting ripped off. 

Randy Sutton on the media's power to influence viewers' perception of law enforcement:

I think the media — both television and movies and reality [TV] — in some instances have done policing a great disservice. Much of the fictional television shows have painted police in a light that's irresponsible, that's negative. The medium is so powerful that people believe what they see on the screen no matter how outlandish it is. They expect to see, when someone gets shot, that they fly back four feet and crumple to the pavement. That's nothing close to the truth.

People get an unrealistic expectation of law enforcement and it becomes their reality. I don't mean to say that about all police portrayals. I think there have been some very good police shows that have been out there. But they make caricatures out of cops. Cops are very human. They have the same strengths and the same weaknesses. They're not supermen. They're trying to do a job. They're family people. They have often been portrayed as crooked, corrupt, violent. And while those things do exist, the vast majority of police officers are just hard working folks that are doing an ever increasingly difficult and dangerous job.

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