For better or worse, it's pretty real. If there is a misleading aspect, it's that incidents don't usually come as often or as close together as it appears from watching COPS. Film crews sometimes have to ride with officers for a week or two in order to get enough usable footage.
One of the most educational aspects of COPS is the way that fights and physical resistances to arrest are portrayed. TV/movie character cops subdue criminals with a single punch or a crafted martial arts move. Poof, the bad guy is in cuffs. In real life, these are protracted wrestling matches with arms and legs all over the place, and the bad guy is often overcome by the sheer weight of the cops on top of him. Try to imagine a fight like that one-on-one. This is why use of force incidents usually look pretty brutal to the casual observer. People have been conditioned to think these should be quick-and-dirty episodes, over in a few seconds with no one harmed.
Most of the cops I know watch the show, at least occasionally, and few have anything negative to say about it. I know several cops who have been on the show, and their experiences have all been positive.
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