Whereas in the re-enacted "Dragnet" there was an effort to "protect the innocent," in contemporary "reality" cop shows such as "Cops" and "LAPD", the often brutalized faces and bodies of suspects are laid bare to a nationwide audience. The announcement at the beginning of "Cops" that "all suspects are considered innocent until proven guilty by a court of law" is pure window dressing, a token nod to that irritating document which has proved an unwanted shackle to modern police since DIRTY HARRY the Constitution. After dispensing with this liability disclaimer, surely tacked on by the show's lawyers, "Cops" gets down to the business of serving as judge and jury at various fucked-up situations, alchemically turning suspects into felons and further criminalizing the images of the underclass and the African American community. Reinforcing the thick-necked black-and-white moral outlook of these shows, the cops constantly refer to their potential suspects as "the bad guys" as if they were starring in a Ronald Reagan film (which, in a sense, they are), a categorization echoed by the "bad boys" theme of "Cops". In addition to violently brutal arrests, "the bad guys" are often subjected to gratuitous verbal derision, as in this cartoonish taunt delivered by a cop involved in an outstanding warrant arrest engineered around a fake free television giveaway: "The bad news? No TV. The good news? You're going to Happyland to play some volleyball." I can only assume that the arrest where the cop said "You're going to slammer to get cornholed on a daily basis" was cut by the producers. Not surprisingly, the cops are also given to excessive moralizing and dime-store psychoanalysis between beatdowns, occasionally revealing more about the subtext of the shows than they should Cop 1: "Wasn't a bad scuffle." Cop 2: "Yeah, but I get tired of scuffling with the same guy when the system isn't taking care of him."
What shows like "Cops" and "LAPD" document are eruptions in the orderly maintenance of this "system" an omnipresent strategy of surveillance, containment, criminalization, and incarceration of which "Cops" itself is a part, posing the question "What you gonna do when they come for you?" if you foolishly decide to buck "the system" yourself. A peculiar effect of these "authentic" police shows is that they produce an audience at once passive and engaged. The relentless parade of violence, stupidity, and half-assed anarchy numbs the viewer to such displays of "disorderly conduct," making the buckwild seem banal, while simultaneously creating "a nation of finjs" (to quote William Burroughs), an audience of armchair detectives, witnesses, and informants. Not surprisingly, the video fantasy of power and authority displayed in "Cops" has begotten interactive "fink" shows like "America's Most Wanted" and "Unsolved Mysteries", which encourage viewers to police themselves in a postmodern version of Jeremy Bentham's infamous Panopticon prison.