San Jose "COPS" Show Is A Bad Idea For Police Department

Bringing the show "COPS" to San Jose seemed a bizarre PR move at first, but given the timing, it can be downright damaging to police and community relations. This article was originally published in the San Jose Mercury News.

Bringing the show "COPS" to San Jose seemed a bizarre PR move at first, but given the timing, it can be downright damaging to police and community relations.

Given the recent report by the Independent Police Auditor citing cases of officers lying to internal affairs, a $90,000 federal jury verdict against officers for excessive force and the beginning of a criminal case accusing an on-duty officer of rape, the only interesting new twist of the show is who the public perceives as the "bad boys."

Having "COPS" in San Jose is a disservice to the department, to the public and the image of San Jose.

The show is about 20 years late in anyone thinking it is a "reality show" with any actual value.

San Jose police investigate stabbings, 2013.
San Jose police investigate stabbings, 2013. (Bay Area News Group)

In the early, wide-eyed stages of reality television (think MTV "Real World" when it wasn't on islands with obstacle courses), the show "COPS" might have been perceived as an objective window into the world of law enforcement. But after generations of reality television shows — each getting more salacious than the last — today's viewers know they are watching fiction: selective filming, editing and packaging to convey a story.

"COPS" is no exception. In last year's 25th anniversary show teaser, shown on its YouTube channel "cops2hot4tv", it depicts officers corralling a zebra, inventive ways to hide weed and, predictably, a bunch of guys with their shirts off showing bloody wounds while running from the police.

Over the years, "COPS" was widely criticized for its portrayal of communities of color, eventually prompting a national campaign by media watchdog for Fox to drop the show, which it did last year. In a letter to FOX and "COPS" producers, the organization called for an "end to these distorted, dehumanizing portrayals that exploit and endanger our communities."

The San Jose Police Department position that bringing "COPS" to San Jose will "provide greater transparency" would be laughable if this weren't such a serious and tenuous moment for community and police relations. How does it help our community build trust in law enforcement for our city to be made into caricatures for the goal of entertainment?

The department contends being on the show can help recruiting. So follow the rest of that thought. If a person watches an episode of "COPS" and, based on the sensational portrayal, wants to become a San Jose Police officer, who exactly is the department recruiting?

If the department feels that showing video of officers on duty is a way to increase transparency, there is plenty of potential footage that can be tapped. The city is about to equip our officers with body cameras. There is going to be plenty of authentic material, no camera crew required.

And in an era of Twitter and cell phone cameras in tech-savvy San Jose, who even needs to go into the time machine of reality TV to get a look at videos of police on the streets?

Video showing the reality of officers' experiences can be a useful tool for building a better understanding of the job. But having that vetted through a production company that is just trying to line its pockets is us playing the fool. Let's get serious about improving community and police relations, not make a mockery of it.

Raj Jayadev is director of Silicon Valley De-Bug and the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project. He wrote this for this newspaper.

About Raj Jayadev

Raj Jayadev is the coordinator of SV De-Bug and coordinates the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, an organizing model for families and communities to impact their local court systems. He is an Ashoka Fellow.

This article is part of the category: Law & Justice 
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