The Spokane County Sherrif’s office announced that “two COPS film crews are riding with Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and Spokane Valley Deputies throughout their shifts” from September to November.
Paramount Network, which is part of ViacomCBS and used to be called Spike TV, cancelled the show this summer, just before season 33 premiered. So how is Cops filming? And why, especially now, when we’re finally starting to have conversations about the role of police in communities—and are still seeing examples of police violence against Black people?
First, it’s worth noting that while ViacomCBS pulled Cops off the air one week after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, it did not do so while making any kind of direct statement about how the show had contributed to systemic racism. In fact, ViacomCBS made the weakest, most pathetic, most blandly corporate statement imaginable, saying this to media outlets: “Cops is not on the Paramount Network and we don’t have any current or future plans for it to return.”
And what was immediately clear was that ViacomCBS actually did not actually completely sever ties with the show. It continues to profit off of it to this day, streaming the show 24/7 on PlutoTV, a free streaming service that earns revenue from commercials. The show even has its own dedicated channel.
In other words, ViacomCBS as a company is just fine with profiting off of Cops and continuing to spread its messages, a distorted reality that doesn’t present an accurate picture of crime while turning aggressive policing of communities—especially poor and Black communities—into entertainment.
That said, these new episodes that are being filmed this fall are not for Paramount Network. Instead, Langley Productions is filming, according to The Hollywood Reporter, “to fulfill commitments in international territories where Cops still airs.” The report said these new episodes will not be broadcast in the United States.
When it first reported on the new episodes being in production, The Spokesman-Review noted that “Spokane adopted a law in 2018 that came close to banning reality shows involving police,” but obviously did not.
However, it is now “a civil infraction for ‘Cops’ or a similar show to air footage of a citizen on TV without their permission. Any Spokane officers featured on the show would need approval from the chief of police, and for the show to film in city limits it would have to get a Spokane business license and a $1 million liability insurance policy,” the paper reported.
That’s a good start, but it’s not enough considering what actually happens when people sign releases. The excellent podcast Running From Cops illustrated how producers get people to sign releases, and it was literally terrifying for some of the people who were featured on the show.
Its host, Dan Taberski, explained in an op-ed that 10 of 11 people the podcast interviewed “were too inebriated to consent knowingly or were coerced into signing — with the police and producers, troublingly, working together to get those signatures.”
In his office’s statement, Sheriff Ozzie D. Knezovich addressed criticism and praised not just Cops and his officers, but also other policing reality shows:
“Shows like COPS highlight the work of law enforcement. They show, even for a few minutes, what the men and women out protecting our communities deal with day in and day out. People need to see how quickly things can turn, the decisions that need to be made quickly, and how well Deputies and Officers adjust and respond appropriately. They show the hard work and professionalism of law enforcement, despite what some anti-law enforcement activists and those in the media want you to believe.”
They certainly do that sometimes. But as Running From Cops, people who’ve been on Cops, and people who’ve watched and studied Cops and Live PD) have all demonstrated repeatedly and clearly, these shows have perpetuated stereotypes while working in partnership with law enforcement, giving police editorial control. Don’t take my word for it: just read the contracts that law enforcement signed in order to appear on Live PD.