Live From The Panopticon!

I’ve been watching the TV show COPS a bit recently. And by “a bit”, I mean “regularly”.  Billed as “reality television with no winners”, the show also includes the viewer in this pyrrhic equation.  To be sure, watching COPS is a grim, tawdry affair. Like sweet delicious cigarettes, I know it’s bad for me, but I can’t resist, nor do I particularly want to.

The late great comedian and noted recreational mycologist Bill Hicks compared the show to an aching tooth that you just cannot refrain from poking with painful results.  He also observed that COPS is designed as a spectacular and glorifying display of state power.  The consistent moral of the story is that when the individual goes up against the state, the state always wins (Hicks parallels the show with the televised Waco debacle).  However, I think this is only one possible reading.  Alternatively, the show could be seen as an indictment of the very state power Hicks says it glorifies.

The cinema verité style of the show presents itself as a disinterested observer of the dramatized cops and robbers dynamic.  Indeed, one of the strengths of the show is the way it erases its own documentation.  I’m struck by how the various subjects seem rather oblivious to the fact they are being filmed (obviously some skillful editing is employed to purge the show of such utterances as “Hey, are y’all from COPS or something?”).  Unlike other shows such as America’s Most Wanted or World’s Wildest Police Videos, the lack of narration and framing allows the show to not explicitly side with its protagonists.  As such, it’s possible to view the show as a critique of the police.  A few observations follow:

1) None of the officers featured in the show ever wear their seatbelts.  Right off the bat, the cops themselves are exempt from (one of) the very laws they are charged with enforcing.  Of course, seatbelt laws are silly, so this is a minor discrepancy, but a double-standard nonetheless.

2) The drug war is a waste of time.  Recently, Obama’s Attorney General officially retired the phrase “The War on Drugs” from lexical duty.  Nonetheless, the possession of certain substances remains a crime throughout the world.  COPS does a good job of demonstrating just how this ridiculous policy eats up the manhours of law enforcement agencies and ruins the lives of people who are guilty of nothing more than wanting to get high.  Obviously, the best way to deal with crack addiction is incarceration.

3) The cops are afraid.  For all their training and weaponry, the police officers don’t take any chances with the public (to be fair, this is a reasonable position in gun-saturated America).  When confronting a possible car thief, the cops follow strict protocol of brandishing their weapons and barking orders at bewildered motorists. The cops seem to have internalized a kind of garrison mentality in which they are islands of civic order amongst a barbaric wilderness.  As such, the world, or rather its people, are easily polarized into mutually exclusive categories of good and bad.

As they repeatedly state in the personal segments which preface each act of the show, the cops are concerned not with bad deeds as such, but bad people. After all, it is the person who is to be punished, not the act.  The act is merely the means by which the bad person reveals himself.  These bad people are easy to recognize: any white person driving a beat up car or driving in a “bad” (read: black) neighbourhood, or any black person driving a … umm … car of any kind really.  Or a bicycle.  Or on foot.  Or standing on the sidewalk.

4) It’s actually quite startling how COPS reveals the latent racism of American law enforcement (although to be fair, this racism is perhaps just one dimension of a greater classism).   It’s easy to see the different way they deal with middle class (usually white) bourgeois types as opposed to poor blacks or hispanics. For example, a middle-aged white lady was pulled over for driving erratically.  By “erratically”  I mean careening through stop signs with a headlight out.  Despite her antagonistic, agitated attitude, the officer let her off and found her rude and suspicious behaviour (baggies everywhere!) a cause for amusement.

Contrast this with the myriad times a young black male is pulled over for a “suspicious vehicle” (ie. any motorized vehicle with a young black male in it).  Such a stop automatically subjects the driver (and his passengers) to a barrage of tricky questions as the cop looks for any probable cause to search the vehicle.  What’s so odd about the show is that the officers will explicitly state to the camera that they are fishing for probable cause (and, of course, only the successful fishing expeditions are broadcast).  While a duff tail light may seem a minor infraction, it really is just the visible tip of the felonious iceberg: for below it lurk far more serious crimes. You know, like owning a pipe or rolling papers.

5) Following from this colour coded Manichaeism, the first order of business in any of the featured vignettes is that the cop must display dominance over the  alleged “perp” (a wonderful term that simultaneously depersonalizes the criminal whilst connoting perversion – “perp” being just a labiodental fricative away from “perv”).  The alleged miscreant must submit instantly to the cops’ authority or face the wrath of the taser or the billy club.

One car thief, for example, was stopped by the cops and ordered at gun point to exit his purloined Porsche.  As he knealt on the road with his hands on his head, he was told to lie face down in the dirt.  Wanting to preserve his stash of dignity, the man refused, unable to see what could be gained by such an act as he was already in the preferred position for cuffing.  Naturally a shitkicking brouhaha followed.

In fact virtually all the scuffles depicted in the show stem from a refusal to “go along the with the program”.   It seems the cops are not so interested in crimes as they are in what I’ll call meta-crimes such as “obstruction of justice”.  Often, in a radical reworking of the traditional concepts of cause and effect, subjects are arrested for resisting arrest, the arrest being resisted is the arrest for resisting arrest.  Basically, the greatest affront as depicted by the show is not a danger or damage to the community, but any challenge to police authority.

This comes back to Hicks’ thesis that COPS is cautionary display of state power, but I think an important caveat that Hicks perhaps misses is that the show does not endorse this, it just offers it up for public consumption.

While this post may seem to have a slight anti-police flavour to it, I should make clear that most of the cops featured on the show seem to be thoroughly decent people just doing their job.  Nonetheless, I do think the show (unwittingly) reveals some of the problems inherent in any disciplinary apparatus.  Of course, human nature being what it is, domestic security is a necessity and, other than banning alcohol, I can’t think of an alternative.


~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on May 28, 2009.

2 Responses to “On COPS”

  1. Mr. Bickerstaff: That’s definitely a different take on the show. Your observation about the lack of seat belt use by the officers I found particularly amusing. I still won’t watch it though. For me it’s like watching a traffic accident, but “reality” TV in most forms tends to either bore or disgust me. That being said, I fully enjoyed reading this post.

  2. So-called Reality TV is bullshit, though I reckon that COPS can make a somewhat more legitimate claim to that title than any other show.

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