To get an idea of how long producer John Langley has been assigning camera crews to film “on location with the men and women of law enforcement,” think about this: When Cops premiered on Fox on March 11, 1989, The Simpsons was still eight months away from debuting, and Ronald Reagan had only been out of the White House for less than two months.
In the 30 years since, Cops has barely skipped a beat. When Fox decided to cancel the show in 2013, Spike picked it up. In 2018, Spike became the Paramount Network, which continues to air new episodes every Saturday. If you can’t get enough foot chases, domestic incidents, and eye-darting suspects, check out these facts about the addictive reality series.
1. John Langley came up with the idea for the series during a cocaine bust.
Cops co-creator John Langley was in charge of a crew covering a real-life drug raid for a 1983 documentary called Cocaine Blues when inspiration struck: He thought it would be a good idea to have a no-frills chronicle of the everyday experiences of police officers. While the concept (then titled Street Beat) was simple, no one shared Langley’s enthusiasm. He was repeatedly told no show without a narrator, music, or plot could succeed.
2. A writers strike got it on the air.
Langley had been pushing the idea for Cops for most of the 1980s when he met with producers at Fox, the new “fourth network,” in 1988. While executives were still cool to the premise, the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike made Langley’s lack of scripted elements appealing. “Suddenly, a show with no actors, host, script, or writers sounded pretty good,” Langley said in 2007. Fox didn’t completely abandon the notion of star power, though: Burt Lancaster voiced a brief introduction for the pilot episode.
3. The “Bad Boys” theme song came first.
“Bad Boys” might be one of the most recognizable television theme songs of all time, but the group behind it wasn’t thinking about Langley or his show when they recorded it. Reggae musicians Inner Circle put the track on a 1987 album, which was heard by a Cops crew member, who then played it for Langley. The rights were sold for $2500; while the show originally used the full version of the song for the pilot, it’s been whittled down to just the chorus for reruns.
4. Each episode has a three-act structure.
While discussing the show’s format in 2007, Langley offered that each episode typically begins with an action sequence (a car or foot chase; subduing an uncooperative suspect), a “slow-things-down” sequence (rational conversation; bats in chimneys), and finally a moral message of some sort (a cop lecturing someone to stay off of drugs).
5. They used to follow the cops home.
Langley’s original notion was to document both a police officer’s working shift and his or her domestic life. In the 1989 pilot, a captain in Florida’s Broward County police department was seen arguing with his wife after a long shift; critic Tom Ensign called it the “only phony aspect” of the show. It was dropped almost immediately.
6. making cops has taught langley to be less cynical about human nature.
In a 2010 interview with Forbes, Langley was asked what the most surprising thing making Cops has taught him about human behavior. “That more people are good than bad, and that criminal behavior is aberrant behavior—it isn’t the norm,” he said. “I think I give humanity far more credit, having witnessed it at its worst. Rather than make me a cynic, it’s made me realize what a small percentage of the population actually commits crimes.”
7. The suspects need to give their permission to appear on the show.
Contrary to popular belief, being arrested doesn’t absolve anyone of his or her right to not be filmed for a national television show. Producers on Cops have to get releases signed by arrestees and suspects. If they’re already handcuffed, the crew can follow them to jail and get them to sign there. Langley has said that proper timing is key when it comes to getting their permission—during a fight is a problem—and estimated that 95 percent of everyone filmed signs a waiver to appear. According to Langley, they simply want to be on television.
8. Some police department see cops as a recruiting tool.
Citing their belief that police work is not meant to be an entertainment product, Chicago is among a handful of cities that have long refused to let Cops shoot in their territory. But for the dozens of other departments that have, the motivation is often to use the show as a recruiting tool for fellow officers. If a cop does something potentially embarrassing? Precincts almost always retain the right to screen footage before it’s aired.
9. The crew has had to interfere occasionally.
The official Cops crew policy is that camera and microphone operators are there only to observe: They’re not allowed to interfere with anything going on. The exception, Langley says, is if an officer’s life is in danger. In one instance, a suspect was about to secure an officer’s weapon when the sound man put down his gear and jumped in; another show staffer administered CPR to a woman in need. He was a paramedic; the officer didn’t know the technique.
10. Unused footage gets trashed.
Langley’s crew can shoot 400 hours of footage to get a single 22-minute episode of Cops. While he originally tried archiving everything he didn’t use, the series has been around for so long that multiple storage formats have come and gone, rendering their continued existence impractical or expensive to convert. So unused footage is either taped over or thrown out.
11. They did a “Very Special” episode.
Cops rarely breaks from its formula of depicting officers on patrol, planning raids, or executing sting operations. But a crew set up in Boynton Beach, Florida got a different perspective on things when they discovered that an undercover officer named Widy Jean had taped an admission from a woman looking for a hitman to kill her husband. When police set up a “crime scene” for the suspect, Dalia Dippolito, to come view, Cops filmed her reaction. According to ABC News, Dippolito was tried and convicted of solicitation to commit first-degree murder in 2011, but the verdict was thrown out due to improper jury selection. Dippolito says she did not want her husband dead and maintains she and her friends faked the criminal plan in order to post it on YouTube and garner fame. Most recently, in the summer of 2018, she petitioned the court for a fouth
12. It’s a $500 million business.
Crime does indeed pay. In 2005, Broadcasting and Cable estimated that Cops had generated $500 million in 17 seasons, with syndication, licensing, and DVD sales reaping huge profits for the modestly-budgeted series.
13. No, they don’t pay the cops.
Langley, who has been critical of much of the reality television that followed in his wake, has always had a firm no-compensation policy for anyone featured on the show, suspect or police officer. “We don’t pay people to be themselves,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2011. “If you pay them, you’re affecting their behavior.”
14. It ushered in the concept of “reality” television.
Though Langley prefers to think of Cops as a documentary series, he’s fine taking credit for being a pioneer of the reality television craze—even if he isn’t a fan of many of the shows that followed in Cops‘s wake. “If I am the father—or godfather—of reality TV, I don’t want to take responsibility for all of the bastards that followed,” Langley told Forbes. “I think some shows in the reality genre are great and some frankly deplorable.”
When pushed for an example of the latter, Langley cited Steven Seagal: Lawman. “These celebrities sucking focus I find to be deplorable. [Steven] Seagal, for example, running around being a cop for some show on cable, give me a break.”