Cops was created by John Langley and his producing partner Malcolm Barbour. In 1983, Langley was working on Cocaine Blues, a television series about drugs. As part of his research he went on a drug raid with drug enforcement officers and was inspired to create a show focusing on real-life law enforcement.

In the late 1980s, after producing a series of live syndicated specials called American Vice: The Doping of a Nation with, Langley and Barbour pitched the Cops show concept to Stephen Chao, a Fox programming executive who would one day become president of the Fox Television Stations Group and later USA Network. Chao liked the concept and pitched it to, then CEO of the Fox Network.

A Writers Guild of America strike was occurring at the time and the network needed new material. An unscripted show that did not require writers was ideal for Fox. Season 1 aired in 1989, and consisted of 15 episodes, and featured the Broward County, Florida, Sheriff's Office. When Cops became primetime on Fox in 1991, and it was called Primetime Cops, and consisted of two episodes instead of one. In 2000, Cops kicked off its 13th season on Fox, with a crossover episode from Jacksonville, Florida featuring John Walsh of America's Most Wanted. John Walsh appeared many times on Cops.

The original concept of the show was to follow officers home and tape their home lives along with their work. After a while the idea of following officers home was deemed too artificial by Langley and was abandoned. Thereafter, the format of three self-contained segments did not consist of any narration, music and on-camera interviews would become the show's formula.

Starting in Season 2, every episode ends with a police radio excerpt from Portland, Oregon. A female officer says "132 and Bush, I've got him at gunpoint", and a female dispatcher replies, "132 and Bush. Cover's Code 3." Another woman says "Units 25, 14 can transmit on Tac 2" and the dispatcher says "OK, we’ll still send it Code 3." Then an instrumental version of "Bad Boys" starts playing while the closing credits roll.

On the first season of Cops, instead of "132 and Bush, I've got him at gunpoint", it was a police radio soundbite from Broward County, Florida, Sheriff's Office.

Cops aired on Fox's Saturday-night lineup since its debut. After 2012, the series retained its traditional timeslot, but aired more intermittently as Fox Sports scheduled more programming in Saturday primetime, with NASCAR in the late winter, Major League Baseball through the spring and summer, college football in the fall, and various UFC events through the year. Cops was then scheduled on weeks without any sporting events, followed by an encore of a Fox drama series.