Cops is the culmination of Keaton's previous cop chase gags; it goes completely over the top. It opens with a quote from Houdini: "Love laughs at locksmiths." Keaton is behind bars, pleading with the mayor's daughter (Virginia Fox). She offers to shake hands, he does, and she walks away - back to her mansion. Keaton stands outside of the front gate, begging her to return. She refuses to marry him until he becomes a big business man. He walks away.
He sees a large man (Joe Roberts) hail a cab. Roberts drops his wallet. Keaton picks it up and hands it back to him. Roberts grabs it and gives Keaton a shove for good measure. The cab pulls up, side swiping Roberts. Keaton helps him back up and Roberts smacks him again. He gets into the cab, which leaves.
Keaton has the wallet. He takes the money out and counts it. Meanwhile, Roberts realizes that his wallet is missing, so he tells the cabbie to turn around. As the vehicle zips past Keaton, Roberts grabs the wallet. However, Keaton still has the cash. The driver turns around again and this time Roberts gets out. Keaton disappears. Roberts looks around for him and the cab speeds away. Keaton is on the running board; he has escaped. Roberts puts his hands on his hips, raising his jacket and revealing his police badge.
The cab pulls up to a curb and Keaton pays off the driver, flashing his large wad of money. A man in a check suit notices it. A family piles their possessions on the sidewalk, ready for the expressman. They go inside. The man sits in front of the goods and cries. Keaton tries to walk past, but the man blocks him, telling a sad tale of eviction. Keaton decides to buy the lot to prove he's a good businessman. The con man takes the whole pile of cash, returning only a five-dollar bill. Then he leaves quickly.
Keaton puzzles out what to do with his treasures. Across the street an old horse and cart wear a sign reading 'For Sale -- $5.00.' He hands his five-dollar bill to the man standing next to the cart (Eddie Cline) and takes them. The sign wasn't attached to the vehicle; instead it was on a jacket outside of a men's store. The tailor comes out and takes the five dollars from Cline, who puts on the jacket. It's a perfect fit.
Keaton leads the horse to 'his' household goods. The family helpfully loads the cart, so Keaton takes a seat while they work. When the vehicle is fully loaded, Keaton shakes the husband's hand and tosses the chair he'd been sitting on up onto the pile. The wife brings out a final vase, water jug, and suitcase. Keaton solves the problem of fitting them in by putting the vase into the suitcase. When it won't close he smashes it shut. He hangs the water jug on and expandable tie rack and it promptly falls, shattering on the sidewalk. The husband gives Keaton their new address (4 Flushing Place - yet the family doesn't look like four-flushers). Keaton throws it into the gutter, stirs up the horse, and he's off - slowly.
Stopped at an intersection by a flatbed truck with a big dog on it, Keaton signals to turn left. The dog bites him. He puts on a boxing glove for protection, signals, and then proceeds down the street. He decides to fashion a turn signal: he nails the tie rack to the wagon and puts the boxing glove on the end. It works well until he gets to an intersection with a traffic cop. He doesn't notice that he's punched the officer twice until he sees him lying on the pavement. He encourages the horse to move faster.
Their progress is so slow that Keaton paces, then turns in for a nap. The horse comes to a dead stop in front of a blacksmith's shop. Keaton yells, but the horse ignores him. He takes the telephone off of the wagon, puts the earphones on the horse, and calls his steed. The horse moves on and Keaton resumes his nap.
The family waits for their belongings at 4 Flushing Place. They speculate that he might have been arrested for speeding.
Keaton, bored, calls the horse and says to stop. He gets out and puts the reins in his own mouth to demonstrate how to move faster. The horse goes even more slowly, picking up only one foot at a time. He stops her again and removes the bridal - and her false teeth. He sees a goat gland specialist, so he takes her into the office. Soon Keaton gets pitched out the door, and he scrambles to get out of the way of the lively horse. He saunters back into the office, but he comes out with only his hat.
Meanwhile, the annual policemen's parade marches down the thoroughfare. Fox and her father, the mayor, arrive at the dignitaries' box. Keaton and his uncontrollable horse join the parades, horrifying the elite. The parade pauses. An anarchist lights and throws a bomb, which lands next to Keaton just as he's searching for a light for his cigarette. He uses the sizzling fuse, then tosses it away, frightening the crowd. After the explosion cops come after him.
The horse runs, shearing off a fire hydrant with the wagon. Spurting water soaks the dignitaries. The cart hits a bump and falls over; cops swarm it but Keaton has disappeared. The departing authorities leave two umbrellas at the back of their box. Keaton emerges from behind one and he's quickly spotted by the police. So he climbs into the building behind the stand. The scaffolding collapses from the weight of his pursuers.
Next, the mayor demands that the police chief "get some cops to protect our policemen."
Keaton calmly walks out of the building. Masses of police cover the street, hiding Keaton from view. They run off and he pops out of a street cleaner's cart, falls over, then runs.
The family still waits in Flushing Place. The father puts on his hat and coat: he's a cop, too.
Keaton runs into a triangular building. Two lines of cops run up the triangle's legs and pass each other. Keaton leaves only to be chased by a solitary cop. Keaton hides behind a traffic cop, matching his movements to the officers. Then he pushes him into the first cop and runs.
Two cops run past a parking lot. Keaton is sitting in the first car, disguised with his clip-on tie as a moustache. After they're gone, he gets out and walks through the lot. Cops come out from behind the cars. One jumps in front of him, and he escapes between the cars.
The cop/father finds his ruined furniture strewn about on the street. A police captain commands some cops to get their quarry. Keaton hides on one of the abandoned trunks. The police run by. Keaton peeps out, but the cop/father sees him, latches the box, and picks it up. The bottom falls out. After they both stare at it, Keaton runs away.
He runs down the center of a street with a horde of cops behind him. One cop heads him off, but he dodges and runs down an alley, cops in pursuit. A car passes, Keaton grabs on, and he's whisked away.
Two cops meet on the street. Keaton lets go of the car and drops in front of them. They both raise their nightsticks. He walks between them and they knock each other out cold.
Next, he climbs a tall ladder that extends over a fence. When he gets past the balance point, he teeter-totters over to the other side. A cop appears, and Keaton rides the see-saw back to the street side. More cops are summoned. They hang off of the ladder on both ends; eventually they catapult Keaton right into Joe Roberts. He helps Roberts up, but the cops are soon after him.
Armies of cops chase him down the street. One (again) tries to head him off, but Keaton slides between his legs. Keaton runs the opposite direction, with cops in pursuit. He runs into a building and cops crowd after him. It's the 5th Precinct Police Station. After the last cop jams in, one small cop comes out and locks the door. It's Keaton. He places the key in a trashcan.
Virginia Fox strolls by, snubbing him. He retrieves the key, unlocks the door, and abandons himself to his fate. "The End" appears on a tombstone beneath his hat.
Keaton runs away from the authorities in several of his shorts: Convict 13, Neighbors, The Haunted House, Hard Luck, The Goat, and Day Dreams — it's a frequent theme in silent comedy. However, in Cops they're everywhere: losing wallets, getting their furniture stolen, infesting the streets. Keaton can't drop off of a moving car without running into more of them. I suspect that there are more cops in Cops than in all the rest of the shorts combined. — Lisle Foote