COPS is a reality show that is "filmed on location with the men and women of law enforcement", which means it's incredibly cheap to make. It is also the longest-running Reality Show on television (it premiered in 1989); the show has a proven formula that has 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, before its Channel Hop). COPS is arguably the most realistic Reality Show on television: there is absolutely no script and no narration outside of the opening credits; everything you see is real people in real situations.
The basic premise is 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's 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 deals with issues from basic domestic disturbances to neighborhood disputes and complaints; the camera crew, it should be noted, is wearing body armor, and in some cases, they're peace officers themselves (and occasionally, they get 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: COPS seems like it'll be here to stay (in one form or another, see below).
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 fight hard for the public's right to know and "freedom of information", but police agencies cooperating with COPS crews protest 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 sign waivers appear without pixellation, so every drunk, naked ranting guy being handcuffed said at some point (and after they sobered up), "Yes, I want to appear on TV like this." Ninety percent of arrested suspects opt to appear without blurring.
COPS's 25-year run on the Fox network ended in 2013. The program moved to Spike that fall and continues to air as part of its relaunch as Paramount Network. Prior to this, the show had celebrated airing its 1,000th episode on August 21, 2017 as part of its 30th season overall.
Not be confused with the animated series C.O.P.S..
- Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: A disproportionately large amount of the show's incidents involve alcohol. Or drugs.
- Bald of Awesome:
- What would appear to be a higher-than-average number of police officers appear to favor this or near-bald buzz cuts. Understandable since they don't want to give a suspect anything to grab onto in the event of an altercation.
- Often averted with undercover officers, since letting their hair grow out would help them blend in better and therefore not tip off suspects.
- Blatant Lies:
- Yes, of course the police can't tell you're drunk.
- The opening of any sting will begin with "Are you a cop?" followed by "No." (There's an urban legend that a police officer is required to tell you they're a cop if asked. Patently untrue, given that undercover police work is a thing. Since it helps with their job, the cops aren't exactly in a hurry to correct this falsehood.)
- People arrested for drug possession will nearly always try to lie about it, no matter what. They can be caught driving a car full of drugs, wearing pants made of drugs while smoking drugs, and they'll still claim its not theirs. Bonus points when they claim it's not their drugs because it's not their car, apparently car theft is better.
- At least one suspect claimed that he shouldn't be arrested for wearing pants full of, if not made of, drugs because "These aren't my pants."
- The Big Easy: Several episodes have taken place in New Orleans, usually during Mardi Gras.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: The show did try to maintain something of a journalistic or documentary feel (at least initially) and has a protocol of maintaining the fourth wall, but occasionally a judgement call will dictate breaking it, such as a cameraman helping an exhausted police officer perform CPR on a subject.
- By-the-Book Cop: Almost everything shown by the police officers is by-the-book, even if some things are occasionally skipped over in the show itself for time, like the reading of a suspect's Miranda rights. Unsurprising, given that they were confident enough to have their activities filmed; you'd better be damn sure you're not involved in violating procedure if there's going to be a camera crew following you around.
- Crossover: Yes, really- once with The X-Files, where a normal episode gets interrupted by Mulder and Scully chasing a Monster of the Week; and twice with My Name Is Earl, where it's depicted as being set in Camden County and following their police force. The latter takes place in-universe before Earl discovered karma. (Both shows were also produced by Fox, though the latter aired on NBC.)
- Deep South: Averted. 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. 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.
- Early Installment Weirdness: The first season included scenes of the police officers off duty at home with their families.
- Eat the Evidence: Don't try this with your entire stash of crack cocaine at once.
- Escaped Animal Rampage: One episode has the police dealing with a zebra escaped from a zoo. They rescue the zebra from drowning in a swimming pool.
- 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.
- Fan Disservice: For all the jokes about male suspects being shirtless, it's just as likely they're people you don't really want to see shirtless, since quite a few have been pretty beaten up by years of drug and alcohol abuse, and generally the types of people cops frequently deal with aren't usually the most fitness-minded.
- Idiot Ball: Running from the police once they've cuffed your hands behind your back. One instance had a suspect run twice after being handcuffed with predictable results.
- Another instance involved a man calling the cops because someone had stolen his marijuana. He was arrested.
- Lighter and Softer: Early episodes had cases often end without resolution, and sometimes would focus on more serious incidents, such as investigating a murder scene, or examining a discovered skeleton to determine who it was and how they died. As the show went on, less serious crimes such as domestic assault or resisting arrest took the spotlight.
- Long Runner: The show's first season was in 1989 and it has been on television ever since, making a Channel Hop to Spike TV in fall 2013 and another one to Spike's successor Paramount Network in 2017.
- Lower-Class Lout: Most of the criminals tend to be in a pretty poor state of physical health, lower-class income, and probably on some sort of drug. Several parodies make note of this.
- Multi-National Shows: Not shows per se, but episodes; the show has shot specials in Hong Kong, London, and the former Soviet Union.
- Once per 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."
- Our Lawyers Advised This Trope: "Due to the graphic nature of this program, viewer discretion is advised." This is an addition to the second part of the aforementioned Opening Narration.
- 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, and the occasional drunken, nude reveler.
- Police Brutality: Two incidents - one, where a North Vegas cop was fired for police brutality, which resulted in his footage being excised (and, though footage showed up in the spin-off Street Patrol, he went unnamed), and an incident in Pierce County, Washington, where a cop was charged with brutality for roughing up a homeless man mistaken to be a burglar. While the charge was dropped, the man's suing the cop.
- This is one of the reasons why cameramen aren't allowed in certain cities' police forces (such as Honolulu), as the police fear they'd be drowned in brutality complaints. Note that a majority of these police forces refusing footage have had a lot of brutality complaints.
- This trope was averted in an episode where a cop shoots a suspect armed with a knife in a pretty clear-cut case of self-defense. The full footage shows multiple officers trying to both talk to the suspect and peacefully subdue him, and the suspect was clearly shown on camera lunging at the cop in question with the knife.
- Reality Show: Doesn't get much more real. There's no script (outside of the opening), the cops are real cops, and the things they investigate are real crimes. More than thirty years after its debut, it's still going, due to it being incredibly cheap to make.
- Shock and Awe: Unsurprisingly, it's not uncommon to see a suspect who thought it was a good idea to run or fight find themselves getting tased.
- Shirtless Scene: Many of the perps don't wear shirts.
- Sound-Effect Bleep: People tend to swear while being arrested. Also, whenever a name is mentioned, last names and addresses are muted, usually covered by a radio squelch tone. Car license plates are also visually blurred.
- Spin-Off: Street Patrol on MyNetworkTV consisted of previously unused COPS footage - some of which was filmed over a decade earlier - with added background music. Jail (also on MyNetworkTV, and later Spike TV) took the filming indoors.
- Stupid Crooks: Quite a few of these show up. For example, one woman called the police because her neighbor wouldn't return $20. When asked what she gave the neighbor $20 for, the woman openly tells the cop that she was trying to buy crack. As a bonus, when the officer asks the neighbor about it, the neighbor denies having taken the money because she's a prostitute, not a drug dealer.
- Stupid Statement Dance Mix: "I can break. These. Cuffs!"
- Takes Ten to Hold: Truth in Television, since it was one of the first popular series to follow real American law enforcement around. There would be suspects too strong for one officer to restrain. In one episode there was a sweaty naked suspect; the officers said it was hard to get a grip.
- 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. Also, it's fairly unusual compared to most modern Reality TV, which involves a fair amount of scripting and behind the scenes organization, as COPS is still completely true-to-life with no scripting, just cameramen filming real police doing their real jobs.
- Visible Boom Mic: One of the rare shows where this is more or less acceptable, considering that the camera and sound guys have to run after criminals as quickly as the cops do. Even still, they do their best to pull their booms out of the shot once it's all calmed down.