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'Cops' on top

‘Cops’ on top — Reality TV is going bust, but after six seasons the flatfoot stars and scene-stealing robbers of Fox’s gritty hit still make for arresting viewing

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There aren’t enough bulletproof vests to go around — so guess who has to go without.

Our squad car has been dispatched to a housing complex in Las Vegas, where a potentially homicidal maniac in a third-floor apartment has been terrorizing his neighbors with a rifle and a hunting knife. Dozens of body-armored police officers are swarming around the grounds, pistols drawn. Serpentining behind them in their protective gear is a camera crew from the Fox series Cops. I stake out a position in the rear, boldly crouching behind a pickup truck in the parking lot, listening to my knees knocking out a version of ”Hippy Hippy Shake.”

The reason I’ve put myself in mortal danger is to observe at close range the seventh-season exploits of one of the last, great survivors of the reality-TV boom that began in the late 1980s. Once scads of these gritty, jerky-camera vérité shows roamed the airwaves; this fall, not a single new reality series is due on network schedules. Yet Cops, always the truest of the breed — no host, no reenactments, no dramatizations — continues to collar a loyal following (its July 30 season premiere pulled in 7.9 million viewers) and keep the critics gushing (”Still has vitality and gutsiness,” Variety raved last month).

This season, Cops rides along with police in Kansas City, Los Angeles, and New York City, as well as Vegas, videotaping murder investigations, prostitution busts, and other felonies and misdemeanors. The show’s arrestingly simple premise — plant a cameraman in a patrol car and tape whatever happens — has been so widely copied it’s practically become a TV cliché. There have been cheap rip-offs, like the syndicated Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, to more subtle cinemagraphic homages, like NYPD Blue. Even Roseanne did a parody last season.

”Here’s why the show works,” offers Cops cocreator John Langley, a former English lit. professor who abandoned bookworming to produce reality TV (he was the mastermind behind Geraldo Rivera’s groundbreaking live drug bust special in 1986). ”Number one, it’s immediate. There’s no veil between the audience and what they’re seeing. Number two, it’s unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen when the camera turns a corner. Number three, it’s real. It’s not prepackaged or pre-fab. It’s totally raw. Everything you see actually happened.”

Langley leaves out number four, the best part: Cops demonstrates just how shockingly delighted the average American lawbreaker is to live out 15 minutes of infamy on TV. ”When Cops first started, we had to do some hustling to get people to sign releases to be on the show,” he says. ”We had these strategies. We’d say, ‘Hey, if you’ve got nothing to hide, why not sign?’ Or, ‘Everybody else has signed, how’s it gonna look if you’re the only one with a blurry mark on your face?’ [Those who don’t sign are electronically smudged on tape.] But now that we’ve become this pop phenom, being on Cops has cachet.”

”We once taped a hooker performing oral sex on a man in a church parking lot,” adds Cops‘ executive producer and head cameraman, Bertram van Munster, an ex-TV ad director from Holland who’s been videotaping in squad cars since the series’ first episode. ”A church parking lot! Both of them gladly signed releases. We couldn’t use the footage, of course, but after that we knew we could get anyone to sign.”

Of course, not everyone is thrilled to be captured on Cops‘ Betacams. ”It does bother me a bit,” confesses Officer Phil George, the Las Vegas policeman who’s sharing his squad car with van Munster and his soundman, Jack Walworth, on this 100-plus-degree July evening. ”It’s disconcerting. It’s shoved in your face while you’re trying to think. Also, I’m representing my peers and my department, so naturally I don’t want to come across as a dummy. It definitely adds some pressure.”

Speaking of pressure: Back at the apartment complex, a police negotiator is shouting at the third-floor window, trying to talk down the man with the rifle and knife. I’m still manning my station behind the pickup truck — although for a few seconds I consider barging into the building waving my Entertainment Weekly press pass to demand that the crazed gunman tell me what movies he rented on video last week. A heavily armed SWAT team arrives and fans out around the building. I decide to stay put.

”This guy could start blasting at any minute,” van Munster says cheerfully, ducking behind my truck to reload his camera. ”The first week we started filming Cops, some guy took a pot-shot at me. It’s a nauseating feeling having someone shoot at you, I can tell you.” Then he darts back closer to the gunman’s window, into what the police charmingly describe as the area’s ”kill zone.”

According to the so-called Hawthorne effect, the act of observing is supposed to affect whatever is being observed. Certainly there is no overt sign of reality-meddling while I’m there-no producers, say, slipping suspects $50 and telling them to run for it. ”We don’t stage anything,” insists van Munster. ”Never. If I catch a cameraman setting up a shot, he won’t work on this show again.”

But there does seem to be something of a reverse-Hawthorne in the air: The observers are clearly affected by the observed. Earlier in the evening, Officer George drove Cops to another apartment complex in Vegas, where a 46-year-old woman had been found dead in her car — possibly a suicide. ”This stuff can really get depressing,” the sound engineer mumbles, watching the coroner examine the body. Van Munster nods. ”A few years ago, we videotaped a very bad drowning,” he says. ”I just lost it. I was walking back into my hotel lobby and I just started crying like a baby.”

My ordeal behind the pickup truck finally ends after about 40 minutes, when the Vegas fuzz coax the gunman into custody. ”Get that camera out of my face!” he sneers at the Cops crew as he’s wedged into the backseat of a squad car. Shirtless, heavily tattooed, with a fashionable skinhead ‘do, he looks a bit like the guy with the banjo in Deliverance. Nobody from Cops is anxious to approach him with a TV release form.

”Well, I doubt we’ll be using anything from tonight, anyway,” Langley says later. ”We weren’t close enough. Sometimes what you get on tape just isn’t dramatic enough.”

Easy for him to say. Next time I’m bringing my own bullet-proof vest.