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Running from Cops

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I finally finished the six-episode “Running from Cops” podcast. It is fantastic and infuriating, detailing the ways that shows like Cops and Live PD have purposefully and unethically distorted the American public’s understanding of what crime in America looks like and what policing can/should be in response. I challenge anyone to listen to the podcast and be able to stomach sitting back down to watch an episode of one of those shows.

The review below doesn’t fully capture what’s so important about the podcast’s takedown of “reality cop TV,” but it’s a fairly decent synopsis. What is really striking is the case that “Running from Cops” compellingly makes for how a wildly popular but utterly unrealistic show like Cops serves to drive support for harmful policies like the War on Drugs through its depictions of drug use and police work. This is not simply junk TV or value-neutral TV. It is TV that is actively harmful to our society.

From the Vulture review:

What Taberski and his team find is unsettling, though perhaps not shocking. It should come as no surprise that Cops portrays hard-luck communities and communities of color as more characterized by criminality than they actually are, and that it reinforces conceptions of certain groups as being distinctly delinquent. Where “Running From Cops” does feel especially revelatory is in the way it details the nuts and bolts of how the show is made. For example, the police forces depicted often have the power to sign off on final edits. Indeed, “Running From Cops” paints the relationship between the show and the police as virtually a full creative partnership (#brandedcontent, anyone?).

In the third episode, Taberski discusses a moment a few years ago when Cops was criticized by a civil-rights group and others for disproportionately portraying black and brown individuals as criminals. The show responded by ramping up ride-alongs in largely white communities like Portland, Oregon, and Spokane in a “frantic search for … white criminals, white hotheads, white trash, white something, you know?,” in the words of Stephen Chao, one of the executives who green-lit the show. Such a strategy did ultimately bring the show’s depiction of criminality more in line with national averages. But, as Taberski points out, it’s a wildly inelegant solution.

Understandably, “Running From Cops” often feels like it’s merely scratching the surface of a much larger problem. Cops, along with its equally problematic descendant Live PD, is the distillation of a toxic combination of corporate interest and state propaganda. And though I might miss the absence of a more personal narrative, of the kind that characterized Headlong’s previous seasons, Taberski’s structural investigations yield important insights into our relationship to law and order in this country.

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