Few things feel more humorless, even beside the point, than taking reality TV seriously. It’s a genre that, more often than not, asks its viewers to suspend not only their disbelief but their critical thinking as well. We’re not supposed to dwell too much on the meddlings of editors and producers, for instance, whose largely invisible labor stitches together narratives that may or may not reflect the events on set. Everyone agrees that reality TV is fake, phony, inauthentic, artificial—but it’s hard to know to what extent any particular show or episode is those things, let alone what the truth is, without a substantial counternarrative to whatever we see. Even when our brains know better, there’s little we can do but trust our eyes.
We’re now paying for our blasé acceptance of the genre’s manipulations with a reality star in the Oval Office. But even without that backdrop, podcaster Dan Taberski’s Running From Cops, which dropped its sixth and final episode on Monday, would be essential listening for the revelations into the civic compromises and exploitative dynamics that go into turning police work into entertainment. (Running From Cops is the third season of Taberski’s Headlong podcast series and marks a vast improvement over Season 1’s rightly notorious Missing Richard Simmons and Season 2’s well-received but scattered Surviving Y2K.) Each episode of Running From Cops only runs 35 to 45 minutes, but the program feels surprisingly comprehensive. An ex–reality TV producer himself, Taberski interviews series creators, network executives, current and former officers, scholars, legal experts, cultural critics, and, most importantly, the people who had the worst days of their lives recorded and broadcast on Cops or its many copycats, many of whom were allegedly filmed against their will and without release forms. The picture that emerges is multiperspectival but unmistakably pointed.
You might ask, “Is Cops even on the air anymore?” Taberski anticipates this question in the first episode, and the answer might surprise you: It’s probably never been more ubiquitous or influential. With more than 1,000 episodes, it hardly feels like a stretch when Taberski calls Cops the “most successful reality show in history” and “the dominant cultural depiction of how real policing works in America.” Taberski even interviews a guy who, after being done wrong by the producers, can’t stop watching the show. New episodes, currently for the show’s 31st season, are still being made, but it’s probably the half-hours in syndication, which often run in daylong blocks, along with the show’s incredibly popular (yet hardly discussed) successors, that now grab the most eyeballs. Taberski, who projects a folksy populism that’s by turns inviting and gratingly hammy, approaches the show as a fan, an admirer in the know, and a journalist curious about how the twin demands of access and spectacle color the stories that get told about the police, their use of force, and the supposed necessity thereof. By contextualizing Cops and its would-be replacements within the war on drugs and the Blue Lives Matter movement, Taberski steadily, and very convincingly, makes the case for their function as pro-state propaganda, as well as the value of closely examining the TV that defines our reality.
On Cops, vice and violence are rampant. Taberski and his team of researchers studied hundreds of episodes and discovered that prostitution, drug crimes, and violent crimes are wildly overrepresented on screen. That’s none too surprising on its own—it’s reality TV, after all—but the numbers become stickier when they’re accompanied by equally inflated images of officers chasing and arresting suspects. (Taberski notes that in real life, traffic stops end in an arrest 2 percent of the time. On Cops, the rate is 92 percent.) The portrait the show paints is of a world that’s a mess, with the police our only hope of cleaning it up. It’s exactly the story you’d expect to hear when cameramen are allowed to accompany officers only on the condition that the cooperating police departments retain full editorial control.
Both law enforcement and the entertainment industry are ripe for abuses of power, and Running From Cops suggests that wherever the opportunity presents itself, it’s taken. The podcast reaches its full impact in chronicling at how many steps in the production process things can go wrong for the poor and the vulnerable, who are the most likely to end up on the wrong side of the screen. A former officer attests to dragging out a traffic stop, thus endangering both himself and the driver, because the producers needed to fill a seven-minute segment. Another ex-cop recalls that subordinates who used to arrest six to eight suspects a month started apprehending people in the hundreds in the same time period after Cops rolled into town. Law enforcement has helped producers intimidate arrestees into signing release forms, sometimes by repeat visits to their homes. A couple of interviewees who ended up on Cops or its most successful copycat series, Live PD, say they don’t recall signing those forms, or perhaps did so when they were in no state of mind to do so. Taberski’s coup de grâce is the last episode, when he compares an aired segment to its raw footage and finds that the policeman on the video maneuvered an already unreliable roadside drug test to yield a false positive, presumably for the cameras. The act is deplorable, but the coda to its discovery is even more so.
Cops doesn’t come across all bad: In contrast to what you might expect, the fraction of black suspects on the show reflects the percentage of black people arrested across the country. (Of course, the latter figure is likely swollen by racial prejudice.) But Taberski’s investigative work—especially when it’s not cheapened by the occasional bit of chintzy alarmism—exemplifies the kind of rigorous distrust with which we desperately need to approach more reality TV. At the same time, the uncommonness of his big-picture analysis and the apparent difficulty of tracking down Cops’ more reluctant participants speak to their arduousness. Running From Cops proves the need for many more discussions like it, but are we finally ready to embrace skepticism over entertainment?