Since 1989, “Cops” has delivered the officer’s view of crime and punishment every week, first on Fox, now on Paramount Network (formerly Spike), where new episodes from the show’s 30th season air every Monday night. “Cops” gained instant popularity in a genre it helped pioneer — reality television — and in the decades since, the show has remained a powerful and divisive force in American life. Civil rights activists, criminologists, and other observers have described it as a racist and classist depiction of the country, one in which crime is a relentless threat and officers are often in pitched battle against the poor black and brown perpetrators of that crime. They’re the plain-clothes narcotics detectives barreling through a suspected crack house, for instance, or the patrol officers racing after a suspect who’s bailed on a traffic stop. As Rashad Robinson, the racial justice activist and executive director of Color of Change, puts it: “It represented for us what was the very worst of the way poverty and crime and communities of color are shown on TV.”
Criminologists who have studied the show say you can’t draw a straight line between the screen and, say, juries repeatedly refusing to convict police officers charged in use-of-force cases, or people believing President Donald Trump when he says that America is in the throes of a sustained and uncontrolled violent crime wave. And yet, social scientists have consistently found that fans of “Cops” and shows like it have a clutch of distorted beliefs a bout crime, including this: They think that black people commit more of it than they actually do.