Last summer, amid a spate of protests against overzealous policing that erupted in more police violence, which only proved their necessity, the silver lining was supposed to be the promise of lasting change. Judging by the impassioned op-eds flying every which way, the demonstrations had triggered a hyperjump in mainstream awareness, with average Americans considering for the first time that there may be irreparable, institutional rot at the root of nationwide law enforcement. Statistics about disproportionate racial dynamics in arrests, harassment of mentally disabled individuals incapable of advocating for themselves, and other damning perspectives on the job came pouring out, fundamentally altering the perception of the cop in the public imagination. The image of trustworthy, competent heroes forming a thin blue line between society and anarchy began to fade, and the hope was that a more sober-minded critique would take its place.
There’s no better bellwether for this presumed shift than Cops, the long-running TV series documenting on-duty encounters between the fuzz and real-life perps. Over 30 years, the show promoted the dedication and fearlessness of the officers on camera while minimizing the harm of their aggressive methods, sometimes even playing it off as humor. The footage courted scandal over the entirety of its run, but the objections that the show valorized the brutal protocols never held water until 2020. Its shortcomings and selective framings were recognized to an unprecedented degree, compelling Paramount to read the room and pull the 33rd season. Those inclined toward cultural analysis took it as a positive sign, a step on the path to enlightenment.
But there’s a magical place where none of this progress stuck, a rightwing never-never-land that allows aggrieved conservatives to hear their opinions parroted back to them and affirmed as unassailably correct, in which the recent developments in social justice can look more like a passing fad than a step in political evolution. Cops has found a home in the bosom of Fox News Media, announced this week as the new host for fresh episodes of the series. (There are murmurs that A&E’s like-minded reality program Live PD may also be coming back.) Despite this ideological faction’s wariness of “snowflakes,” the streaming platform Fox Nation will provide a safe space not just for the wayward TV property, but for the increasingly obsolete school of thought it represents.
Going to the online Fox hinterlands means that this latest iteration of Cops won’t have to contend with the difficult question of what a humane, conscious version of the show might look like. If mounted on network TV for mass consumption, the segments would have to reflect the reality that we all know too well. It’s hard to picture, say, the participating officers going out on a 5150 call (mentally distressed suspect) with a social worker or health professional and trying to defuse the situation rather than wrestle it into submission. The show can’t function in a world where a traffic stop feels less like a spectator sport than the beginning of the realest horror in everyday life.
This quandary raises the question of what Cops is for, functionally speaking. It’s not to faithfully portray the truth of police work, or else the rate of violent crimes, sex work, and successful arrests wouldn’t be nearly as high as they’re represented onscreen. If it’s to lionize the long arm of the law, that’s a strange way of going about it, the police often behaving in a jumpy, hostile manner that doesn’t cast the badge in such a flattering light. That leaves only the amusement factor, the notion that there’s a viewership with a reliable desire to watch chases and tacklings, even (or perhaps especially) when they’re at the expense of the unstable, the inebriated and the helpless. Anyone with the mistaken impression that Cops 2.0 would embrace critical reforms would do well to note that Fox Nation has already offered all active police and first responders a free year’s subscription to the service.
Just as giving the hook to Cops symbolized a turning of the tide in American culture, so too does the show’s retreat into the welcoming refuge of the post-Trumpite media-sphere carry a weighty significance. The rift fracturing the polarized populace of the US continues to widen, accelerated by the availability of televised and online content to reinforce any stance you could choose. Fringe partisans can bunker themselves in their respective realities, separate and only getting farther apart. Like any of the pundits or celebrities decrying so-called cancel culture, the literally canceled Cops can find a refuge in the isolated yet expanding Fox News universe. There, time stands still. The decision to cling to that era of unchecked authority only tightens the unsettling bond between police departments all over the country and the far-right at the fore of the Republican party, done licking its wounds and back to consolidating influence.