John Langley, ‘Cops’ Creator, Dies at 78

Ride-along show was a three-decade reality TV hit but was criticized for creating a skewed portrayal of police

John Langley Cops creator
Photo by Todd Oren/Getty Images for Langley Productions

John Langley, creator of the hit reality show “Cops,” died of an apparent heart attack while racing in the Ensenada-San Felipe 250 in Mexico, according to media reports. Langley was 78.

“Langley was participating in his second running of the Record Off-Road Series championship race with his son Zak, fighting for the overall lead in the Open Class aboard his 50th Baja Truck, suffering a heart attack at the height of the Baja racing location, San Matías Pass,” Baja Racing News LIVE! reported.

Off-road racer and Langley’s Cops Racing Team member, Steve Hengeveld, paid tribute to his friend: “Thank you for believing in me and allowing me to be part of your family on Off-Road and treating me like I’m your family. I will never forget you. Forever in our hearts. Rest In Peace .”

Created as an alternative to scripted programming during the 1988 writers strike, “Cops” became a hit show on Fox, following police in departments across the country in ride-alongs and earning four Emmy nominations during its early years.

The show ended its run on Fox in 2013 and moved to Spike, now known as the Paramount Network, while finding a heavy presence in syndication. The show’s reggae theme song, “Bad Boys” by Inner Circle, became one of the most famous TV show themes of all time, particularly after its fame was elevated by Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in the “Bad Boys” film series.

But “Cops” also faced strong criticism from police reform and abolition advocates for creating a skewed portrayal of police controlled by the very departments it depicted. The 2019 podcast “Running From Cops” investigated the inner workings of the show, revealing how suspects who were arrested on-camera were coerced into signing waivers allowing them to be shown on TV while police were given free rein to cut out any footage that depicted officers in a negative light.

Ultimately, “Cops” met its end in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. While the show is still filming to fulfill overseas TV contracts, Paramount Network decided to cancel “Cops” in June 2020 amidst scrutiny over depictions of police in media brought by the Black Lives Matter protests.

Despite the controversy of “Cops,” Langley is regarded as one of the forefathers of reality television, as “Cops,” along with shows like “The Real World,” helped establish both the mass popularity of the format as well as its ability to fill network programming gaps at a much lower cost than scripted shows.

Through “Cops,” Langley also helped popularize the cinema verite style of filmmaking that would become the key visual style of not only the ride-along police show but TV documentary and news filmmaking as a whole. Alongside production partner and fellow “Cops” creator Malcolm Barbour, Langley developed his show’s style starting with the 1983 indie short doc “Cocaine Blues,” which explored the drug trade, and later with the 1986 TV documentary “American Vice: The Doping of a Nation,” which featured three live arrests.

During the latter half of “Cops” run on TV, Langley said in a New York Times interview that his views on law enforcement and justice had greatly changed since he first started filming the police in the 80s. While he denied claims that “Cops” was exploiting the people it filmed being arrested, he felt that America should move towards a philosophy of rehabilitative justice.

“When I first went into this business, I thought, well, if they commit a crime, they should do the time,” Langley told NYT in 2007. “A lot of our attention is dedicated to arresting people who have drug problems when the real solution may be to rehabilitate them. We’re asking police officers to solve social issues, and that’s not their job.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.