“Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” has long been my favorite TV series. Back at Penn, I’d watch SVU curled up in bed on Friday afternoons, on the treadmill most mornings, and while I did my makeup before a night out. Last fall, I even gave in and purchased a Hulu subscription just so I could have access to all 21 seasons. That's 478 episodes, approximately 320 hours of the police procedural, for those of you keeping score at home. The show follows a cast of NYC detectives charged with handling the city’s most sensitive crimes, such as sexual assault, kidnapping, human trafficking, and domestic abuse.
I love SVU for a lot of reasons: the suspenseful high-speed chases down the West Side Highway, the satisfying feeling when a case is closed and justice is served, and the tear-jerking moments when Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) consoles victims of assault, helping them to regain their strength and find their voice. Plus, there are the panoramic sights and sounds of New York in every season, an added bonus when I miss home. But amidst growing protests surrounding police brutality and calls to dismantle police departments across the United States, I found myself asking if my beloved SVU was in need of a serious reality check.
The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two Black Americans killed by police in recent months, reignited protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and placed a spotlight on police abuse. Videos of police officers antagonizing peaceful protesters furthered public distrust of law enforcement and called into question the respectability and trustworthiness of the institution. Demands to defund or abolish the police have taken the internet by storm. Instagram and Twitter have been flooded with the acronym “A.C.A.B.” or “All Cops are Bastards,” calling out an intrinsically racist system that cannot allow any single officer to act in a “good” or just manner.
In the world of Law and Order SVU, however, there are good cops. In fact, most of the cops in the Special Victims Unit fall into this category. Benson is shown handcuffing sex offenders in the middle of the street, fiercely taking the stand on behalf of abused women, pushing the District Attorney to seek harsher punishments for sex offenders, and believing the stories of every victim who steps through her door. Not to mention, she’s the single mother of an adopted son and a survivor of sexual violence herself. Benson climbs the ranks of the NYPD from Detective to Sergeant to Lieutenant to Captain, all while staying true to her feminist values.
In the midst of the #MeToo movement around 2017, Olivia Benson became a hero and an emblem of what cops can and should be. One study even found that watching SVU positively educated viewers on consent and sexual violence. As a lifelong feminist, I too hopped on the train. Not only was Olivia Benson a hero, she was my hero.
Unfortunately for Captain Benson, however, America seems ready to cancel “copaganda,” or media coverage that unfairly portrays police as benevolent heroes. “Cops,” a documentary-style reality TV show that ran for more than three decades, was recently cancelled. So was “Live P.D.” another cop-centered docu-drama.
When I heard about “Cops” and “Live P.D.” being pulled from the air, my immediate instinct was, “thank God.” Our country has spent way too long glorifying the police and fueling the narrative that their job requires excessive force and murder to catch the “bad guys.” The reality is, it doesn't. The violent crime rate in this country has been falling for years and hyper-sensationalized TV villains are few and far between in real life.
When I realized this means I’ll probably have to part with my fictional mother-figure/best friend/glass-ceiling-breaking hero, Captain Benson, however, my heart sank.
“She’s such a good role model!” I thought to myself.
“She actually fights for women! And she KNOWS that the system is broken!”
But, as much as every episode of SVU gives me a glimpse into what our police departments should be, it's not a glimpse of what actually is.
As many as 200,000 rape kits have gone untested by police forces in the United States. Women across the country had to sue police departments just to get them to investigate their cases of sexual assault. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), for every 1000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators will walk free. Compared to the empowering, justice-seeking department Olivia Benson manages on the show, this reality is bleak at best, and dangerous at worst.
As much as I love to watch a 100-person S.W.A.T. team led by Sergeant Fin Tutuola (Ice-T) raid a run-down house in Queens while breaking up a human trafficking ring, that just isn't the overwhelming reality of being a cop. In fact, in 2011, the average police officer made about 14 arrests per year, with less than one being for a violent crime. We have armed our police with billions to fight bad guys who only exist in Hollywood storylines, yet these exact storylines are what keep us tethered to this myth.
Only time will tell whether or not SVU survives the souring public opinion of police sweeping over the country. As for me, it might just be time to let go. Olivia Benson taught us how to have empathy for others and ourselves and showed us what a world for survivors of sexual violence can be. But, until that dream is a reality, it might be time for Captain Benson to hang up her NYPD jacket, and for the rest of us to begin building the world we one day hope to live in.