In light of the number of shootings of black people by white police officers and the accompanying protests, the television show COPS was taken off the air after 32 years. Did this television show lead to the situation we have today?
I noted before that revolutions in media tend to create revolutions in society. The printing press allowed everyman to read the Bible in their own language which led to the schism between the Catholic and Protestant churches - and the creation of the latter. Radio broadcasting lead to the domination of dictators in the 1930s which led to World War. The internet and the smartphone have literally changed the way we think.
But there are other, smaller changes in the media which have affected our lives dramatically. In the 1970s, small portable film cameras were created for "on the scene" interviews - which before then, were hard to come by. I recall reading magazines of that era during my research for Patents. Video tape recorders were large bulky things that often required a van to haul them around. Polaroid actually offered an instant movie camera which would produce film right away, which could then be shown on the Five O'Clock News. Prior to that, news teams would have to rely on 16mm film cameras and hope to have the film developed in time for the evening news. "On the scene" video was a very rare thing back then.
Of course, today, everyone has some sort of security camera or doorbell camera or a crash video camera in their car. Cameras abound, and we were used to seeing video of every event in our lives. But during the 1980s and 1990s it was a transitional period where everybody didn't have such cameras, but news departments had small portable video cameras they could use to go "on the scene" to take video. Suddenly, we could see crimes as they occurred, rather than waiting to read about them in the newspaper.
Two things became prominent during this time period. First, particularly in California, news helicopters would follow high speed police chases, using radio scanners to monitor police activity and be on the scene. In some instances these news helicopters actually collided with police helicopters with tragic results. Regardless, news-hungry Californians feasted on videos of high-speed chases, usually resulting in spectacular crashes. The ratings were boffo.
I wondered then, and wonder now, if some of the people involved in these high-speed chases aren't aware that they're being filmed, and in fact want to "go out with a bang" so to speak and make an impression on their neighbors and friends. "Look at me, Ma! I'm on television! Top of the World!" Rather just pulling over and surrendering, they continue on these high-speed chases, which eventually will end badly. But in the meantime, they'll become mini-celebrities on television!
(And sadly, in California, at least, there doesn't seem to be any disincentive to doing this. If you get pulled over driving a stolen car, the penalty is about the same as leading the police on a high-speed chase, in a stolen car. Since there is a possibility of escape, the criminal figures, "why not?" and tries to flee the scene).
The television show COPS came out about the same time as these police chases became a thing. Portable cameras allowed people to "ride-along" with the police and take videos of crime investigations and arrests. What the audience usually wants to see, is some meth-addled or drunken person without a shirt on, giving the police a hard time and then being tackled by police officers.
No one wants to see an hour-long video of a cop sitting in a car eating donuts and waiting for something to happen. But that's the actual nature of police work, there's a lot of boredom involved.
The problem with the show COPS is that it is a "reality" show, as we know, reality shows are fake. It's not that they're entirely fake only that they edit the raw footage to make things appear to be more dramatic than they are. Also, the producers of reality shows invariably "suggest" to the subjects that they do certain things - things that they ordinarily might not be inclined to do.
Thus, I have to wonder if perhaps
maybe the producers of the show may have suggested to a perpetrator that they fight the police or otherwise act in a bizarre manner. And perhaps they also suggest to the officers at the scene that they make the arrest more dramatic, involving a tackle, or pummeling the subject into submission. These are things that people want to see on television, not boring arrests where people are handcuffed and put in the back of the police car with a modicum of dignity.
It is funny, but when I watch British crime dramas, the police officer merely taps the suspect on the shoulder and says, "All right now, off to the nick with you!" at which point, the subject confesses to being the serial killer, bravely facing his five-year sentence in British Luxury Jail. But maybe that's why they capitulate so easily - the consequences are not as dramatic. Again, when the sentence for killing a cop is about the same as selling meth, it incentivizes criminals to shoot first - not that I advocate a "soft on crime" approach. Far from it!
Normative cues. Normative cues. Normative cues. I talk a lot about those here. When you think something is "normal" in your life you tend to behave along those lines. As Robert Heinlein famously said, if everyone is rubbing blue mud of their bellies, I get in there and rub blue mud with the best of them. You don't want to be seen as odd or different. So we tend to look upon our neighbors to see what's acceptable behavior and then modify our behavior to match that.
So, I wonder if perhaps the situation we are in today is the result of these television shows and live video chases. People watch these shows and think that it's normal to resist the police when you're being arrested. They watch these high-speed police chases and think that instead of pulling over when the cop puts his lights on, that you should make a run for it. And why not? The television is telling you this is normal behavior, or what's expected of you, as a criminal.
And what is the message being sent to police? That you should chase and tackle a suspect and perhaps beat them on the head with your club and subdue him. You can't help but root for the police in these COPS videos, hoping that the police officer in question beats the crap out of a suspect for being so insolent as to run away from the police.
Before COPS, of course, there were police shows on television. But perhaps as viewers, we knew they were fiction. And some of them were rather appalling. I have watched old episodes of Mannix and Hawaii Five-O online and the police procedures they depicted probably wouldn't have passed muster even back then. I have lost count of the number of "cop show" episodes where a suspect is gunned down - shot in the back - because he ran away from the Police.
In one episode of Hawaii Five-O, Dan-O is accused of murdering a suspect, when he "shoots the door lock out" (another television trope) of a suspect's apartment, "accidentally" shooting the suspect who was behind the door. The whole episode hinged on whether the suspect stole a car stereo and thus justified Dan-O chasing him and eventually killing him. Fortunately, a happy ending! A witness comes forward to say that yes, the young man who died was indeed a thief, so he got what was coming to him! Gavin McLeod guest stars as "Big Chicken". Four stars - would watch again.
The normative cues from that episode are many - for example, that if you come to a locked door, you can "shoot out the lock" (and padlocks give way in a similar manner). What would probably happen, though, is that the bullet would ricochet and hit you, or go through the door and kill someone inside. Today, or even back in 1970, I am not sure police procedure would call for "shooting out the lock" when chasing a petty theft suspect, particularly when you can just kick down the door. But maybe I am wrong about that.
Perhaps I'm wrong about this entire thing. Perhaps people have always resisted arrest or run from the police. Perhaps the police have always been violent and abusive. And in fact there is evidence to suggest that both of these are possibilities, at least upon occasion.
But I wonder also that maybe perhaps news reporters shouldn't be embedded with the police, putting them on camera, because the behavior of the police officers will inevitably be different than that if they were not filmed. This is not to say that things like body cameras are a bad idea, only that they should be used in situations where there are questions raised about an arrest situation. The work of policeman and the actions of criminals should not be used as entertainment for the masses.
It is akin to the idea of putting cameras in courtrooms. People say that we should videotape trials so that people will have better access and see what's going on. But when you put people on camera, they behave differently than when they're off camera. And the OJ Simpson trial was a prime example of this, with even the judge behaving in a not-judge-like manner, once the cameras and bright lights were turned on.
Channels like Court TV weren't trying to educate the public about how a trial proceeds. Rather, they were trying to use these trials for entertainment value to attract viewers in order to sell them SUVs during the commercial breaks.
It would be one thing to have these videos on something like C-SPAN with a camera dispassionately recording events. It's another thing to put them on a network where commentators chime in with their opinions as though it were a sporting event.
And so it goes for an entire criminal justice system, from the initial arrest on upward. It should not be subject for entertainment of the masses, although this probably goes back to even Medieval Times. A good trial and execution were entertainment for many people, who would come from miles around to see someone drawn-and-quartered or hung or decapitated. There wasn't much else in the way of entertainment back in those days, and even lynchings were quite popular with some people.
I think the situation we are in today is a direct result of this entertainment-izing of our police force. Police work should not be the subject of amusement or entertainment, except perhaps the fictionalization in television cop shows. We know those aren't real, so we don't take them as being the whole truth. But even then, producers of fiction have a responsibility to their audience not to present poor normative cues, or at the very least, point out they are poor.
Sadly, "reality" television is actually believed by lot of people. And I think a lot of perpetrators take away from these shows that behaving in an irrational manner, running from the police, or resisting arrest are normal things to do. These are often deadly choices. I think police take away from this, the idea that the general public is rooting for them and hoping they'll beat the crap out of some suspect because, let's face it, we all think they deserve it.
So, a decade later, we have people resisting arrest and deciding they don't want to be arrested, and police officers using excessive force to subdue suspects, just like they saw on television. Perhaps it's a bit of a stretch to make this connection, but I think there's something to it.