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Cops Shop

Reality TV got a jump start in its dominance of the television schedule because of shows like Cops and America's Most Wanted. Both deal with factual content and certainly do capture people in the "art of being themselves".

The show Cops premiered in 1989. The simplicity of it is why it works so well and has run so long. Put cops and cameras together and as Seinfeld would say, "That's a show".

No attempts are made to conceal the cameras. Participating officers wear wireless mikes and the resulting footage from the streets of America is better than anything Hollywood make believe might conjure up for Saturday night prime time.

I've seen hundreds of episodes of Cops and the show never bores. The half hour episodes are tightly edited so the action, whatever it is, just keeps on coming. We get an insider's look at human behavior through cops' eyes. Revelations occur weekly.

The producers and crew members on Cops make no attempt to disguise what they're doing and the cameras are quite visible. So, why do so many people appear at their worst in front of rolling cameras? This is puzzling. Misbehaving in the presence of law enforcement is questionable enough, but to pay no heed to the camera while in the act of demonstrating one's bad behavior is confounding. Given that some subjects are intoxicated and others are flying on their drug of choice still gives the lens an eyeful of many sober people conspicuously breaking any number of laws. When confronted the excuses and explanations are more original than anything script writers might manufacture on a studio backlot.

Curiosity got the better of me and I couldn't stop wondering how much filming the Cops crews really do to come up with a solid 22 minutes which is the program length minus commercials and credits. According to available on-line production notes, it can take as many as 400 hours of taping to isolate 22 interesting minutes. Seeing what ends up on Fox TV really makes me wonder what it is they don't show.

During production the Cops franchise uses as many as five to ten camera crews scattered around the country. The two-person crews don't just show up at roll call or jump into squad cars. Prior to shooting any video the producers meet with all the participating departments and interview a number of officers looking for those who appear to be most comfortable with the camera. They also look for those with the verbal skills to narrate their activity verbatim.

The Cops field crews consist of a camera operator and a sound recordist. They are instructed to not become directly involved in police actions but their need to be up close and personal - means that each wears a bullet proof vest. On several occasions, crew members have gone to the aid of officers struggling with arrestees. Their presence has been meaningful in other ways. Several seasons ago a Cops crew on location in Lynn, Massachusetts filmed an officer shooting an armed suspect who attempted to stab the policeman. Their TV video became the evidence proving the officer acted within department guidelines in reference to use of deadly force.

Cops has not been welcomed to film anywhere it wants. Chicago is probably the biggest city that has refused their request to come in and chronicle local law enforcement. A spokesman for the Chicago Police Department has said "Police work is not entertainment. What they do trivializes policing. We've never even seriously considered taping". Orlando and Honolulu have also refused to allow the Cops cameras access.

Chicago is not averse to our police and fire departments appearing in films and TV shows. Several cop shows and movies have used Chicago as their primary location or city of identity.

Remember M-Squad with Lee Marvin, Lady Blue with Danny Aiello? The Blues Brothers with a cast of thousands? The Chicago Fire Department was the backdrop for the 1991 Ron Howard film Backdraft. The NBC series ER has been a Chicago staple since 1994. It was a play before it was a series and the hospital where the original idea was born is actually Illinois Masonic Medical Center on West Wellington. At one time, ER and the other hospital series Chicago Hope were both in production making our town the medical center of the TV universe.

Daniel J. Travanti starred in a great and gritty cop series Hill Street Blues, which used Chicago streets, expressways and other landmarks as the combat locked Hill Street station, a police precinct that was overworked and understaffed. The series ran from '81 to '87 and 93 episodes were completed. Travanti liked the area so much he moved here and now lives on the North Shore.

Film and television productions are good for the local economy. Our craft unions get to work, actors and extras that live here can work, and production companies are big spenders in restaurants, hotels and with industries supplying lighting, sound, catering, and transportation.

Some day I would like to see a change in City Hall's attitude toward a show like Cops.There is no reason our department should be kept from national exposure. Negative things get reported without fail. Twenty-two minutes of episodic TV wouldn't do the police department any harm and just might do some good.

Chicago is far from being overexposed when it comes to film and TV.



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Posted on September 20, 2007


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