Since 1989, Cops — yes, they are still making new episodes — has pointed cameras at low-level drug arrests, prostitution busts and suspects all manner of inebriated and shirtless, over and over again.
The new podcast Running From COPS takes a deep dive into the societal impact of the Cops worldview and the ethics of how the series gets made. It was created by Dan Taberski, a longtime Cops viewer who formerly worked in reality TV. He ponders the motives of the producers, and maybe more importantly, the more than 100 law enforcement agencies that have allowed the show to film them.
That includes the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which has appeared on 11 seasons, more than most. Pinellas County and Pasco County deputies have also appeared on the show. Taberski also explores Live PD, a new and very popular successor to Cops, broadcast live from Pasco County for two seasons. The Pasco sheriff's office said in March it was moving on from the show, but didn't rule out a possibility of TV cameras returning some day.
Taberski said he and his team spent 18 months researching and producing the six-part series.
"(Cops) was the dominant way that you came to understand how police acted," he said. "I guess it's just sort of amazing to think about the power of that message, and being able to control that message."
Creator John Langley was interviewed for Running From COPS. But Langley Productions, which produces Cops, called the podcast a "highly sensationalized, skewed and biased take," in an email to the Tampa Bay Times, and said it "seeks to cherry-pick the most salacious and inflammatory allegations while glossing over many of our own responses to (Taberski's) questions, and relevant facts about the show."
Taberski has found success by reframing cultural topics we think we know, but don't know at all.
His first podcast, Missing Richard Simmons, became a controversial phenomenon. It repainted the fitness guru, who Taberski said "everyone thought was a joke, a guy who went on TV and cried a lot," into a compassionate hero who personally "saved thousands of lives."
He followed that with the acclaimedSurviving Y2K, a deeply personal narrative about what really happened at the turn of the century to doomsday preppers, technological naysayers and himself.
Running From COPS could be his most complex effort yet. He and several producers binge-watched more than 850 episodes of Cops, logging each segment by the type of crime, race of those arrested and other factors.
Cops paints a picture of an alternate-reality "Cops world" in which America is scarier, more violent and more affected by drugs and prostitution than it really is, he said. It also shows a world where nearly every officer's hunch comes up right.
For example, Taberski said, 17.4 percent of crime on Cops is violent, compared to the FBI's data of 4 percent in real life. More than 35 percent of arrests shown on Cops are for drugs, though in real life that's 12.6 percent. On Cops, traffic stops almost always end in arrest. In real life, Taberski said FBI data show they rarely do.
Some disparities Running From COPS found hold up when you zoom in on Hillsborough County. Taberski provided data for 64 Cops segments filmed in Hillsborough, both with Tampa police officers and sheriff's deputies.
Crime data provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows that 15.3 percent of all arrests in Hillsborough County between 1998 and 2017 were for violent crime. On Cops episodes filmed in Hillsborough, it was 17.9 percent — in line with real life.
But less than 1 percent of arrests in Hillsborough were for prostitution, compared to 7.1 percent on Cops — nearly eight times the real amount. Drugs made up 14.1 percent of arrests in Hillsbourgh, versus 41 percent shown on Cops.
Drug and prostitution arrests make for compelling TV. But what's in it for law enforcement?The show's producers give police agencies ultimate say in what goes into any given episode.
It's a way to show the gritty reality of a police work, said those interviewed on the podcast. And a former public information officer for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office called the production a "morale booster," speaking to the Tampa Bay Times in 2016.
The agency did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Taberski draws his own conclusions: It's all wrapped up in the war on drugs and the irresistible allure of a public relations campaign zapped right into millions of American homes.
"It creates a world that's much more violent and extreme," Taberski said, "where the police seem much more necessary."
And what about the people being arrested?Why would anyone consent to having their face shown on national TV during such a horrible moment?
The producers of Cops and the police Taberski talked to on the podcast say every suspect willingly signs a release form, and that those who say they didn't are lying. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has made it crystal clear that it has nothing to do with the release form process.
That brings Taberski to Tampa in Episode 3 to seek out Corey Robinson, who was filmed for Cops in 2010.
Robinson, then 18 and a high school senior, tells the story of hanging out in a park where a football game was taking place, and being tackled by a deputy after the game ended, for trespassing.
Robinson maintains that a producer for the show convinced him he'd be charged with a felony if he didn't sign a release form, and that he believed it.
"We would remind you that Cops has been on the air for 30 years, and we've never had a release invalidated or overturned in a court of law," said a spokesperson for Langley Productions. "We've seen many cases over the years where subjects who have given consent get 'buyer's remorse' once their segment airs, making all sorts of outrageous allegations."
Robinson's story, of course, is only one. Tracking down people who have appeared on Cops is painfully difficult, Taberski said. The show does not include suspect names.
The podcast producers resorted to taking screen grabs of people's faces, landmarks and street signs and comparing them with years-old mugshots and arrest records. Sometimes they'd show up in a bar in an unfamiliar city with a printed out photo asking around.
In the end, Taberski said Running From COPS tracked down only nine people who were arrested on the show.
"Just one voluntarily signed a release, according to them," Taberski said. "The rest either didn't sign, they were too drunk to know it or they were coerced."
The podcast does not paint a flattering picture of Cops. Taberski presents his evidence and lays out his theories and conclusions with the help of officers who appeared on the show and criminal justice experts who see Cops as packed with civil rights violations.
Worst of all, Taberski claims, is a behind-the-scenes, uncut video of a crack cocaine arrest filmed for Cops in Georgia that was never meant to be seen by the public.
The charges in that case were later dropped when a lab determined the substance was not drugs. A lawyer for one of the people arrested makes some heavy claims about what he believes the officer did.
Anyone with an internet connection can listen to the first five episodes of the podcast now for free and draw their own conclusions. But Taberski notes seeing that video as the moment he knew he could no longer stumble onto an old rerun of Cops on cable and leave it on as mindless background noise.
Times data reporter Eli Murray contributed to this report. Contact Christopher Spata at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @spatatimes.
WHERE TO LISTEN
Running From COPS
Episodes 1 through 5 are currently available for free via all major podcast apps, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Google Play. Episode 6 is available early for Stitcher Premium subscribers. Listen online or subscribe free at topic.com/runningfromcops.