What if he'd called it PIGS?

I just got this email from John Langley, the guy who made the uber-reality show Cops. I see it as an acknowledgement of all of us who tend to read more into TV programs and their creators' intent than they might suggest on the surface.

Dear Mr. Rushkoff:

It was refreshing to recently read "Media Virus" and your take on "Cops," which I happen to produce and for which I'm responsible as the guy who created it. I can't tell you how tiresome it is to read traditional criticism and critiques of "Cops" as an expression of this or that, usually far from the mark (or at least in terms of my intentions). As a kid of the '60s, I was more likely to name the show "Pigs" than "Cops," so it was indeed rewarding to read that you positioned the program more accurately in its existential realm of relativism. All I do is feebly hack away at trying -- emphasis on trying -- to capture some version of "reality" that will speak for itself, including the echolalia of the very media influence that filters it by the act of recording it. (Viva Heisenberg!) Anyone with half a brain should recognize the social, political and philosophic issues it sometimes reveals in the quotidian pursuit of law and order and the meaning of street crime.

In any case, keep up the good work! And apologies for getting to you so late in the day. Your book is no less valid for the delay.

Regards,

John Langley
Executive Producer - "Cops"

Not only does an email like that make my month, but restores my faith in the notion that absolutely mainstream programs might still be intended to have a rehabilitative or even noxious effect on the overculture. The fact that Langley made Cops in the spirit that Albert Maysles made Salesman means that we can cut through the clutter and expose mass audiences to virulent memes - even in the darkest of times.

(Douglas Rushkoff is a guestblogger)

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  1. I wish Langley would go a step further, and explain why we never see the COPS deal with suspects that actually demand to see a lawyer.

  2. My guess is that most people on COPS are pretty damn stupid, pretty damn stoned/drunk/strung-out, or both.

  3. This is a great letter, but I can’t help picturing Langley yelling these words while running around in the glare of a police spotlight, wearing stonewashed jeans, no shirt, and a mullet.

  4. Overculture?

    Spreading virulent memes even in the darkest of times?

    I love this guy!

    Actually, I’ve always felt that even some of the shlockiest Hollywood films have elements that propagate countercultural memes…consider the Evil CIA meme so prevalent in movies now and that no one seems to bother even commenting on.

  5. Presumably because a) the cops acquiesce and the segment ends there, which doesn’t make for entertaining TV, or b) any cop who’d deny access to counsel is smart enough not to have that captured on tape.

    What kills me about COPS is that all the suspects must have signed a release to appear on the show. “Hey, I just got busted, but I’m gonna be on TV!!” I’ve been watching COPS for longer than I care to admit, and I still don’t get that.

  6. I’ve watched COPS since it first began, and one of the things I love about it is that it hasn’t changed the formula one bit in 20 years; a cameraman & a sound man recording the cops. That’s it. No narration, no host, no background music, no “celebrity ride-along” episodes, no crap.

    As for ultramoderate’s post, I’m not quite sure what you mean. I’ve seen plenty of episodes when suspects choose to remain silent, and/or demand a lawyer. In those instances, the cops say “OK,” and continue the arrest process. Unless you were implying something else, I don’t understand your statement.

  7. I don’t think they need to sign a release… I think committing a crime makes you a public figure, meaning your likeness and recordings are fair use. If that were the case, it would limit the people on the show to those who wind up getting convicted — but having a show of alleged law breakers wouldn’t make much fun.

  8. @ #5 Maneki Nico…

    A number of years ago, car chases were all the rage in LA. Turns out, crooks were so pleased with the thought of being on TV while fleeing police, they’d steal a car and GO FIND A COP so that they could begin a flashy chase through downtown LA, complete with TV helicopters. Some even called the stations so that they could converse with the newscasters during the chase.

    People are infinitely interesting in their choices, values, and priorities.

    “Don’t tase me, bro.”

  9. In a million years I would never guess the creator of “Cops” would bandy about a phrase like, “The existential realm of relativism.” I do love having my stereotypes blown away. I still hate that fucking show, though.

  10. Does anyone else cringe over the use of the pop culture interpretation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle? You might as well use Einstein to argue moral relativism or James Watt to argue the power of love.

  11. I’ve only tuned into COPS once or twice, so I may be way off base here… but it seemed to me that the police were presented as being near-infallible (I figured that this was probably necessary for the show to continue having access to ride-along).

    What gave me this impression was a ride along with a cop on the D.C. beltway where he said something along the lines of, “Let’s just randomly pull that van over and see if we find any violations.” Sure enough, the van was smuggling pounds and pounds of drugs.

    Perhaps the producer sees this as subtly critiquing a random search… but the fact it resulted in a big drug bust definitely blunted the point. My guess was that there were many random searches that day that resulted in nothing more than innocent citizens being harassed… but rather than show a montage of that, COPS only showed it as being effective and only impacting the guilty.

  12. uberpretentious? quotidian? Remember, never use a big word when a diminutive word will suffice.

    I watched COPS for the first few years, but after a while it became sort of repetitive. I’ll still watch it every now and the at work, but my wife wont let me watch it at home.

    One important thing I have learned watching COPS – If you’re a white guy, drinking with your friends outside, and someone takes their shirt off – someone is going to be arrested. It seems like 4/5 of the white guys arrested on the show isn’t wearing a shirt.

  13. @ #14 Ethan…

    “Perhaps the producer sees this as subtly critiquing a random search… but the fact it resulted in a big drug bust definitely blunted the point. My guess was that there were many random searches that day that resulted in nothing more than innocent citizens being harassed… but rather than show a montage of that, COPS only showed it as being effective and only impacting the guilty.”

    I have not seen anything like that, but like you, I confess not to have seen that many episodes of the show (or TV in general).

    However, police have to have what is called “PC for the stop,” meaning probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. It can be as simple as lane-weaving or a burned-out taillight.

    This gives them authority to make the stop, but does not give them authority to search the vehicle (except certain specified areas for weapons for their own safety).

    What usually happens next is that if the cops suspect the (van in your case) of carrying drugs, they say “Mind if we search your van?” For some reason, guilty people often agree to this. If they refused, the police could NOT search the van unless they had probable cause to get a search warrant.

    And, if they have PC to get a search warrant…uh…good. I don’t see how that is a bad thing.

    If the police fail to get permission to search, and search anyway, the results would be thrown out of court upon challenge by any half-competent lawyer – and video provided by “Cops” would be sufficient, I would think.

  14. @10, wolfiesma,

    (From my 10+ year old undergraduate paper for “Visual Rhetoric” ha!):

    “John Langley, one-time Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy of Aesthetics and creator of “COPS” says “I had always loved the idea of following “COPS” around, without a host, without narration, and without reenactments.”_ Murray Jordan, Producer of “COPS” further states “We don’t editorialize about what they do or how they do it. We just show it, and hopefully the facts speak for themselves.”

    Of course I go on to talk about the Panopticon because it was 10+ years ago…

  15. On COPS if the police chase a dude, they always capture him. The cops are on the their best behavior if a camera for COPS is filming them. I’m not sure if this is such a great mirror for expose. Contrast COPS to the boing-boing videos posted where they don’t realize they’re being filmed/taped/digitized …

  16. Murray Jordan, Producer of “COPS” further states “We don’t editorialize about what they do or how they do it. We just show it, and hopefully the facts speak for themselves.”

    Mr. Jordan is being disingenuous. The editing process and choice of content is a form of editorializing in itself.

  17. @14 Ethan:

    I used to watch COPS fairly frequently, and I’d say your experience with the random-stop drug-bust episode was abnormal.

    The thing I found compelling about the show (OK, apart from the near-endless capacity for morons to get themselves into really stupid problems) was the Dragnet/film-noir style “white knight in the naked city” narration by most of the cops. Every episode would feature at least 2 or 3 minutes of some squad-car cop philosophizing, typically via a long series of cliches, about the role of the police in society.

    The fact that it was simultaneously apparently heartfelt, and yet so clearly filtered through 75 years of cop fiction (consciously? unconsciously? did it matter?), was what I couldn’t get enough of.

  18. Pleasantly surprised by the 2-dollar words and interesting thoughts, but it kinda reminds me of the intellectual bs around minimalist “paintings”.. e.g. how can I make this simple thing seem complex?

    Nothing really wrong with that, philosophers do that, but to say that watching cops cruise around and arrest pathetic people should be seen as some sort of art form or social critique… Bit of a stretch IMHO.

    #11, Yeah, he’s shooting for the observer effect there I think, the act of filming(observing) changes what happens. I think throwing a few physics references into pop culture isn’t so bad..

  19. Oh, and by the way — OF COURSE the guy who created COPS thinks it’s soo much more than people know! Of course he hitches his wagon to Heisenberg and the “quotidian pursuit of law” … just like the guy who created “The Saint” testifies in court that his show has NOTHING to do with James Bond.

  20. #21, he’s shooting for the observer effect there I think, the act of filming(observing) changes what happens.

    More accurately, as an embedded observer that must stay in the good graces of its host (the police) to stay in business.

    The camera arrives with the police, captures only the context the police encounter, i.e. presents the cops’ perspective and that of no one else.

    Likewise, the cops aren’t just doing their job, they’re doing PR on that show.

    Nowadays, many of us are seeing what mere observers, actual bystanders, are capable of recording about police behavior. So much so, that pointing a camera at police causes them to censoriously lash out.

    This guy, Langley, for so many years cackled about being a Liberal at every opportunity – is still doing it. Yet he profits off his comfy relationship with the police and stokes the hysteria that has led to our incipient police state. And what a nice demographic pairing, for years being shown side by side with Rush Limbaugh… uh, Langley’s a “Liberal” so it was for “balance”, folks!

    I wonder if John Langley ever shudders at the reactionary loathing and fear he helped instill in America.

  21. I don’t watch Cops much- but I’ll admit to believing that it serves a greater purpose.
    Gavin De Becker, the psychiatrist who wrote “The Gift of Fear”- states that one of the media’s biggest failings is how it glorifies serial killers and other people who do harm by glamorizing them and turning them into legend, thus giving them power. In the book, he states that he’d much rather have these sad, mad and sociopathic people shown up for the socially inept and pathetic human beings they are by subtly belittling them.For example, instead of showing them glowering behind bars and heavily gaurded, show them chained to a char and watched over by female police officers (no less competent, but less attractive to those who want power and would copy-cat).
    COPs shows criminals for who they are-sad, often stupid, always idiotic, and makes the good guys, for once, look as good as they are.

  22. @ #16 wigwam jones
    You said “If the police fail to get permission to search, and search anyway, the results would be thrown out of court upon challenge by any half-competent lawyer”
    But the facts are that they only need probable cause real or imagined.
    About 3 years ago I remember a long stop and search and waiting for a cannine to search me too, all done after I did not consent to a search after being pulled over for ….. well I never found out why. I was sure after about a hour and a half the eager officer was going to plant something on me but I was finnaly released. I found out it is very common in that town by that cop too. I haven’t been to my fathers house since.

  23. If having the COPS people riding along puts officers on their best behaviour then I want a COPS team out with every law enforcement officer in the country all the time.

    I’d like some support information on the ‘random search’ comment having actually occurrred but regardless it would seem beneficial to the cause of COPS as a safeguard because capturing it on tape would seem to be grounds for getting the search tossed in court as being unwarranted thus negating the bust.

  24. #25, People who paint all criminals with the same broad, unsympathetic brush are themselves displaying a somewhat sociopathic tendency.

    In an ailing and unjust society, the word ‘criminal’ is often used to reinforce antipathy and remove any benefit of doubt towards others, even people who have been arrested on a TV show but not yet tried in court.

  25. @ #26 Red Leatherman

    But the facts are that they only need probable cause real or imagined.

    I am not a lawyer, nor a police officer (any more), but I have been the happy recipient of many years of college edumacation in ‘criminal justice’ and Probable Cause (PC) is only grounds for a stop, not a general search of a vehicle.

    The exception is if they have PC to believe there is contraband (such as drugs) in the vehicle. Thus, they cannot search your vehicle using the PC that your taillight was burned out, but they can search it with the PC that they saw a hash pipe on your dashboard.

    Some states have the further restriction that even then, officers cannot search without a warrant unless they can prove that there was not time to obtain one.

    About 3 years ago I remember a long stop and search and waiting for a cannine to search me too, all done after I did not consent to a search after being pulled over for …..

    I’m a bit unclear on what you’re asserting. Was your vehicle searched, or was it sniffed? Were you searched, or were you sniffed? There is nothing illegal about the police using a drug-sniffing dog to sniff you – that is not a search in that sense. Did they turn your pockets inside our or make you strip? That would be a search.

    As to why you were pulled over, you’re entitled to know. The police officer does not have to tell you, but there is a record of the stop, and it is a public record, and unless there is a criminal investigation in process, you’re entitled to see it. If you were held and not permitted to leave while they were waiting for the dog to arrive, you were technically ‘arrested’ even if they did not cuff you or read you your rights. You are entitled to know why you were stopped.

    well I never found out why. I was sure after about a hour and a half the eager officer was going to plant something on me but I was finnaly released. I found out it is very common in that town by that cop too. I haven’t been to my fathers house since.

    You’re certainly within your rights to refuse to return to be stopped again, and there are certainly police officers who abuse the law. I doubt it is the rule, and I doubt that the officers in the episode of “COPS” quoted above pulled over a van for the purpose of searching and did so with neither PC, nor permission to search.

  26. @wigwam
    Thanks for replying to my post, and sorry for the thread hijacking, perhaps there is a record of the stop. to give a bit more detail, I was not strip searched but it was a thorough going through of my vehicle, that lasted for about 45 min then he decided to get the dog, I was standing clear of the car making small talk with another policeman that had arrived. but when I heard that the officer that had pulled me over was going to get the dog, I ask again if I was under arrest. waited 15 min, then when the dog arrived and alearted on a piece of gum on the pavement about 10 feet from my car(seriously), it got serious again for another half an hour.
    I’m a pretty average 49 year old and I have a drink less than once a year I can think of no red flaggs I may have waved other than not agreeing to a search. while this made me uncomfortable and very cold after standing in the cold for over an hour in shirt sleeves, I can say it’s not the norm in most places in Texas, but in Lake Dallas it’s different for one officer and a dog.

  27. #28-
    Let me clarify.
    The serial killers I referred to in my first post ARE generally socially incapable, damaged people who instead of seeking help, seek to hurt others instead. And I agree with some experts that the media should be more careful to portray them sad and pitiful rather than give them power.

    Why? Because a lot of desperate lonely and alienated people are being led by the media to think that going out in a blaze of bullets and is the only way to attract attention.

    Cops is a show that doesn’t glorify criminals, and I appreciate that.

    As for the “antipathy and pre-judgment” part of your comment:
    No. My comment is not pre-judging every single person arrested (and to of course be considered innocent until proven guilty).

    A lot of the folks being arrested on Cops are clearly in the process of making very bad choices. The drunken woman swaying next to the car the police just stopped on the freeway. The guy with bloody knuckles next to a sobbing beaten wife in a domestic disturbance call.
    The guy who just knifed another in front of a roomful of witnesses during a heated confrontation instead of walking away.

    They are ordinary people intentionally making poor choices that should not be either glorified or waved away.

    It’s demeaning to the humanity and intelligence of the person being arrested to say we should all coo sympathetically and blame “A broken society” instead of the person who is clearly and willingly making a choice to make a bad situation worse.

  28. It’s too much schadenfreude for my taste.

    Yes, people who commit crimes shouldn’t be glorified, but why do I get the impression that the majority of the time the eye of the camera falls upon alcoholics, the poor, or the uneducated and desperate. Does anyone really glorify the majority of the crimes they are committing, such as domestic violence, DWI, public intoxication, and robbing convenience stores? When was the last time you saw any of those glorified by the media?

    If the motive were to shake-up the romanticizing of crime than they should be following these suspects through their booking, trial, and punishment. If you want to dissuade anyone of drug dealing show them the real consequences, the threadbare reality of the suspect’s circumstances after the crime and not just the strobe-lit arrest.

    That might not sell as well though would it?

    At best, the show is misguided and short-sighted at achieving its stated aims.

  29. “Does anyone really glorify the majority of the crimes they are committing, such as domestic violence, DWI, public intoxication, and robbing convenience stores? When was the last time you saw any of those glorified by the media?”

    Er…when did you last listen to Gangsta Rap?
    Or take a peek at some of the exploits of people on MySpace? Girls Gone Wild, anyone?
    How about Grand Theft Auto?

    I work in the area of Urban public health, and I see the long-term effects of all the social ills you cite.
    My colleagues and I often joke that we work in “primary felony prevention” because we strive for the simple interventions that help keep adults and children out of trouble (after school clubs, screening for glasses and learning problems that cause kids to drop out of school, getting jobs into the community and making decent food easily available…). Yeah- it would be nice to have the “Real” story served up in-depth.

    And brother, if you can get a documentary film maker and a grant, I’ll be the first in line to do whatever I can to get you the thoughtful, in-depth real story. However I can help.

    I really appreciate your compassion and thinking about this issue. Very few people spare the neurons to do so.

    But failing the major network backing for the in-depth story, and considering the lack of attention span that our television audience has, I’ll humbly take any reality program that makes crime look silly, sad and foolish (the usual reality) over the CSI-style portrayal of Armani-clad thugs waving wads of cash (usually the unreality)around any day.

  30. Perhaps to the satisfaction of the original creator, me and several friends have referred to that show as “PIGS” for years. Although there are plenty of stupid or malignant criminals on the show, there are also plenty of times where a cop is clearly just being pushy, or a mostly harmless guy gets busted for having a joint in his pocket; one of the first episodes I ever saw involved cops taking a man out of his house simply because his wife complained about his drunkenness (no violence, no DUI, he was just drunk and the cops came and took him away.)

    An overarching theme of the show becomes apparent after a while– it’s pretty much always the poor that are getting arrested, the cops are always patrolling trailer parks, ghettos, and the no-man’s land of abandoned lots and river fronts where the homeless go for refuge. You rarely see a white guy in a suit driving a BMW get pulled over, and there’s never domestic disturbances in penthouses. Now. . . I don’t know what that means– maybe the well-off don’t commit crimes, maybe they don’t get caught, or maybe they have better lawyers and don’t allow their footage on TV. Maybe the poor really are just dirty scum and they’ve turned their neighborhood into “the ghetto” through their own laziness. Or maybe the ghetto is just the ghetto, and it’s all just the dumb luck of the universe. . . .

    All I know is “COPS” always ends up reminding me of John Carpenter’s “THEY LIVE.”

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