COPS was a reality show that was "filmed on location with the men and women of law enforcement", which means it was incredibly cheap to make. It was also the longest-running Reality Show on television (it premièred on FOX on March 11, 1989, where it ran until 2013; it then ran on Spike/Paramount Network until May 11, 2020). The show had a proven formula that remained popular for years, and it was part of the longest unchanged nightly schedule in American television (FOX's Saturday night schedule; the other show in that schedule was America's Most Wanted). COPS was arguably the most realistic Reality Show on television: there was absolutely no script and no narration outside of the opening credits; everything you saw was real people in real situations.
The basic premise was as follows: camera crews follow police officers in various cities as they go about their jobs. While your average police officer's job is generally mundane, COPS makes it look rather... well, not glamorous, but certainly more action-packed than usual. There were generally a few chases, a few drug busts, a couple of prostitution busts, and more than a few instances of (usually shirtless) trailer trash. Only Jerry Springer has more trailer trash per episode than COPS.
COPS dealt with issues from basic domestic disturbances to neighborhood disputes and complaints; the camera crew is wearing body armor and, in some cases, they're peace officers themselves. (And occasionally, they got involved in the action -- one member of the camera crew in a particular episode was an off-duty sheriff's deputy, and had to drop the camera at one point to assist in subduing a rowdy suspect!)
It's been parodied more than a few times, but you can't argue with success.
There have been disagreements between police departments and production companies, especially when it comes to the "right to privacy" provisions of US (and Canadian) law; film and television crews fought hard for the public's right to know and "freedom of information", but police agencies cooperating with COPS crews protested that the "right to know" does not trump the individual's right to privacy and security of person.
Eventually, it was decided, in consultation with the producers of COPS, that the individual's right to privacy should be respected, and that the faces, license-plates, and addresses of those featured on the show must be obscured in post-production. People who signed waivers appeared without Pixellation, so every drunk, naked ranting guy being handcuffed said at some point, "Yes, I want to appear on TV like this." Ninety percent of arrested suspects opted to appear without blurring.
Two studies carried out in 2004 indicated that the show was skewed toward showing white people as police or non-violent criminals, while black and Hispanic people were shown as violent criminals more often than they are in Real Life. It wasn't until 2020 that this became an issue to the broadcasters, when a black man was killed by police one week before the 2020 season of the show was scheduled to begin. The show was pulled from the schedule, and cancelled two weeks later.
Not be confused with the animated series COPS.
- Blatant Lies: Yes, of course the police can't tell you are drunk.
- Similarly, the opening of any prostitution sting will begin with "Are you a cop?" "No." (This often works to a police officer's advantage: There's a common urban legend that a police officer is required to tell you that he's a cop if asked. Patently untrue, given that undercover police work is a thing that exists.)
- Deep South: It borders on an aversion. The show is somewhat famous for the shirtless, toothless morons, but they're seen all over the country. It isn't just hillbillies folks, trailer trash is nationwide.
- On that topic, when the show is in the Deep South, the officers shown are diverse in both gender and ethnicity, in fairly good shape, and well spoken (with perhaps a hint of a drawl to give away a locale). It's a far cry from most Hollywood portrayals of southern law enforcement.
- Eat the Evidence: Don't try this with your entire stash of crack cocaine at once.
- Evil Is Cool: Subverted in-universe. Most of the criminals are not-very-bright losers.
- Fair Cop: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There's a lot of criteria for who gets filmed, such as service record, camera presence, and yes, appearance. Most of the cops are at least average looking, with a few particularly handsome/beautiful specimens.
- Idiot Ball: Running from the police, especially for something petty. Once there was a clip that involved a man calling the cops because someone had stolen his marijuana.
- Long Runners: COPS ran for thirty-three seasons, making it the longest-running reality show in history. Also, the Fox Saturday night schedule which included it was the longest-running unchanged nightly schedule on American television.
- Multi National Shows: Not shows per se, but episodes; the show has shot specials in Hong Kong, London, and the former Soviet Union.
- Once an Episode: Usually, segments will end in an arrest (even for ones where the segment was actually focusing on something small - usually, due to being overdue to a court hearing or a related crime on record, or because someone did something stupid like lie to a cop). If it doesn't end in an arrest, it's usually because someone was shot or injured and the suspect already fled the scene.
- Any time there is a domestic disturbance call, you can almost guarantee it will involve a man who is not wearing a shirt.
- Opening Narration: "COPS is filmed on location with the men and women of law enforcement. All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law."
- Pixellation: Used to protect the identities of people who don't sign waivers (In return, the people left unblurred get a small performer's fee. If the editors have to do a lot of blurring, the clip has to be really good), as well as for the usual censorship purposes.
- Reality Show: One of the early examples; FOX picked the series up because of the writer's strike of 1988. No script meant no need for professional writers.
- Real Song Theme Tune: "Bad Boys" by Inner Circle. The song was initially recorded and released in 1987, two years before Cops premièred. However, it wasn't issued as a single in the United States until 1993, where it promptly went to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 because it was the theme song for Cops.
- Sound Effect Bleep: People tend to swear while being arrested. Also, whenever a name is mentioned, the last name is muted.
- Too Hot for TV: One of the earliest examples.
- Unbuilt Trope: By the time the term "Reality TV" was invented and became a popular genre, this show was already considered a Long Runner.
- Shrek 2 had something like this when the fairy tale characters are watching the magic mirror TV showing Shrek, Donkey, and Puss In Boots being arrested by knights during a pursuit. "You are watching Knights".
- CSA: Confederate States of America had a fake commercial for "Runaway", a parody of this show based around finding runaway slaves. Even its theme song sounds suspiciously like a version of Bad Boys done by a bluegrass band instead of a reggae group.
- The film Dirty Cop, No Donut and its sequel, Dirty Cop 2: I Am a Pig.
- The Simpsons had a version following Springfield PD, changing the theme tune to "Bad cops, bad cops..."