Army veteran John Langley was competing with his COPS racing team in the Coast to Coast Ensenada-San Felipe 250 off-road race in Mexico this past weekend when he died of an apparent heart attack at age 78.
Langley created “Cops,” the police documentary series that ran for 32 years and introduced cinema verité camera techniques to television audiences. “Cops” proved there was a network audience for “reality” TV, and the show’s production style has influenced almost every non-fiction entertainment show that followed in its wake.
Many of the people featured on the final season of “Cops” from 2020 weren’t even born when the show premiered on Fox in 1989. The show spent a generation chronicling the ways in which police officers are asked to be social workers, fight referees and drunk wranglers instead of doing the law enforcement job they signed up to perform.
Langley somehow chose Inner Circle’s reggae tune, “Bad Boys,” as the theme song to a show that chronicled the seedy underside of life in inner cities and trailer parks. The choice worked, and the song first became a top 10 hit and then a classic.
Langley grew up in Oklahoma and served with U.S. Army intelligence in the early 1960s. He spent the rest of the turbulent decade in school, graduating from Cal State University Dominguez Hills before attending graduate school at U.C. Irvine.
He got his first film credit as producer and director of the 1988 anti-drug documentary, “Cocaine Blues,” and later produced and directed journalist Jack Anderson’s controversial news documentary, “American Expose: Who Killed JFK?” before hitting the jackpot with “Cops.”
“Cops” moved from Fox to cable network Spike TV in 2013 and continued to air after the channel became the Paramount Network in 2018. The show was pulled from U.S. television after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 and later canceled by Paramount. The show remains popular outside the United States, and a new season went into production last October with the Spokane County, Washington, sheriff’s department.
Do police officers, victims and suspects behave differently when there are camera lights on the scene? Anyone who’s lost an entire weekend to a “Cops” marathon knows the answer is a definite yes.
Did the show help or hurt a police or sheriff’s department’s relationship with the community it’s supposed to serve? Detractors have complained about the show’s influence on law enforcement for almost as long as it has been around.
When future historians get around to telling the story of our era, they’ll certainly find a place for Langley and “Cops.” Few television producers can match his impact on the culture. Rest in peace, soldier.
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