As the uprisings against police violence force a national reckoning with how Americans conceive of police, calls to closely examine the role of pop culture in valorizing cops have grown more pressing. While the first cultural tentpoles to fall have been reality-based shows like Cops and Live PD (which were recently canceled), that scrutiny is increasingly being extended to scripted crime dramas, like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU)—shows that week after week drill home the narrative that police are heroes who almost always treat survivors with respect, solve the case, and provide a pathway for the victims’ healing.

Soon entering into its twenty-second season, SVU is the longest-running series within Dick Wolf’s successful Law & Order franchise. The show explores the personal lives and professional work of detectives within the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Unit, which solves sex crimes. The series has been credited with opening up public conversations about sexual violence and consent, and highlighting less explored issues such as the backlogs of untested rape kits that languish in departments across the country. In fact, a 2015 Washington State University study found that viewers of SVU had a better grasp of sexual consent than viewers of other crime dramas like CSI or NCIS. 

However, the elements that make SVU extremely easy to watch—the formulaic episode structure, the heroism of its detectives, and their success in tidily wrapping up cases—also seeds audiences with false ideas about how police operate in real life and how effectively the criminal legal system grants justice. Those depictions are particularly powerful given that a majority of Americans, many of whom live outside heavily policed low-income communities of color, don’t have any personal contact with the police and rely on the media to shape their ideas around who and what ensures public safety.

Mikki Kendall, an author and cultural critic whose work focuses on feminism, media representation, and policing, told Prism that these shows reproduce false ideas about law enforcement that often contradict widely reported news about police misconduct.

“I’ve noticed that, because people are fans of fictional cops, they then talk about how difficult police officers’ jobs are based on the mythical presentation of what they do,” said Kendall. “I had someone argue with me that ‘In New York, we take sexual assault seriously,’ and I had to point them to the articles about New York cops raping rape victims before they understood that TV is lying.”

Elite squads

Unlike shows like Cops and Live PD, scripted crime dramas often focus on cases handled by non-uniformed officers in specialized units as opposed to the everyday operations of uniformed street patrol officers. While there are notable exceptions such as Blue Bloods, Chicago PD, and 9-1-1, many scripted dramas center on specialized units like FBI critical response teams, forensic units, naval criminal investigative units, major case units, and as in the case of SVU, sex crimes units.

This focus on specialized departments produces seemingly opposing but related effects. First, they create the sense that police spend the majority of their time investigating and solving serious crimes like kidnapping, rape, and murder. In truth, serious crimes comprise less than 5% of arrests. A recent analysis conducted by The New York Times of 10 city police departments, including Baltimore and Sacramento, found that serious violent crimes comprised less than 1% of all calls for service (911 calls, calls to emergency operators, police radio, etc.) received so far this year.

Second, the focus on specialized units separates the show’s protagonists from police who patrol the streets and more frequently garner public scrutiny. In fact, when shows like SVU depict police misconduct, it is often perpetrated by uniformed beat officers and framed as an aberration from normal police activity, or a bad action taken by otherwisegood officers.“

“Dedicated detectives”

Sex crime investigations are the narrative vehicle for SVU, and with most episodes featuring reported cases, it can be difficult for viewers to grasp that in reality, almost two in three rapes are not reported at all. Surveys from survivors note that many reasons contribute to the decision to not report, ranging from fear of being mistreated by police to past negative experiences with law enforcement. But those negative experiences barely show up in television portrayals, in large part because the police themselves are served up to viewers as the heroes of the stories.

Indeed, perhaps the most significant element setting scripted crime procedurals apart from reality TV police shows is the relationship that viewers develop with the protagonists—characters who become more complex and beloved with every weekly episode or weekend marathon. In a 2018 interview with Rolling Stone, Warren Leight, the SVU showrunner between 2011 and 2016, noted that after the season 13 departure of lead character Elliot Stabler, played by Christopher Meloni, the show revamped to focus more on the personal lives of the survivors as well as the detectives. “I thought it had gone as far as it could go with odd stories and kinks,” said Leight, “so I chose to focus more on the emotional toll on detectives, victims and their family members.”

In the eight seasons since, viewers have learned about the detectives’ pasts, their lives at home, their families, and their personal relationships. With that character development has also come the entrenchment of the idea that while these “dedicated detectives” are flawed, they ultimately want to bring justice and protect both survivors and their families.

Those portrayals don’t speak to the many times police have ignored or cast disbelief on reports made by survivors or other special victims, like young children or the elderly.

And that doesn’t even address survivors whose attackers were police themselves.

Obscuring police misconduct

While SVU storylines featuring internal investigations of police sexual misconduct or violence against women are treated as one-off very special episodes, they actually are closer to reality: Sexual misconduct is the second most common form of violence committed by police officers against civilians, and 40% of law enforcement homes experience domestic violence.

Kendall says that this prevalence of police sexual violence lays bare the problems within carceral feminism, which she defines as the assumption that the criminal legal system will adequately help address the issue of sex crime.  

“When we’re talking about carceral feminism, it’s the idea that the criminal justice system works the same for all women, that if you just call the police they’ll come help you,” said Kendall. “Well, SVU feeds into that because if you watch SVU, for the most part [detectives] believe every victim and they’re nice to them. Sometimes they detour from that formula, but for the most part they’re working hard every day and they’re going to catch him and they’re going to help put him away and they’re pushing for people to testify because in TV land there might be a conviction.”

Those small screen depictions diverge from the realities of certain populations more than others. Police sexual violence is particularly prevalent for sex workers, for example, who are already criminalized and routinely report being approached by police for sexual favors. A 2002 study found that 24% of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist. When sex workers do file reports of domestic or sexual violence to the police, law enforcement’s negative perceptions of them can often result in their cases not being believed or handled with the appropriate level of sensitivity.

Alternatives to the ineffective, harmful carceral system

Even when the police themselves aren’t responsible for an attack, the criminal legal system routinely fails to meet survivors’ needs in other ways that don’t show up on the small screen. A 2019 lawsuit from survivors in New York City alleges that the NYPD and its Special Victims Unit operate under a “male-dominated culture” and that the department ignored or mishandled their reports of rape by either not taking their allegations seriously or not keeping the victims updated on the status of their investigations.

Across the country, police are also not particularly efficient at resolving sex crimes when they are reported. Kendall noted that less than 15% of those accused of rape are ever even arrested because of the backlog of unprocessed rape kits.

“I understand on the surface level the idea that if a rapist gets arrested and prosecuted then it’s a deterrent,” said Kendall, “except what we’ve seen is that rapists are not arrested for the most part.”

Further, as one of the few mainstream cultural products where sexual violence is deeply considered, shows like SVU don’t—and perhaps cannot—help viewers understand that there are avenues outside of the carceral system for seeking redress. Thus, for people uncomfortable with the criminal legal system—including those who see it not as a site of justice but rather a place where harm is compounded—few, if any, other options remain.

That’s not an idle concern, as illuminated by a 2007 report by the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault examining the obstacles sexual violence survivors experienced navigating rape crisis centers, hospitals, and aspects of the criminal legal system after an assault. When asked why she chose not to go to law enforcement following her assault, one respondent replied, “I didn’t want to arrest my best friend.”

Her words echoed a common sentiment, particularly in communities who’ve been most impacted by mass incarceration, where survivors who know their abuser may choose not to report because they don’t want them to be arrested and ultimately incarcerated given the significant harms of the criminal legal system.

The gap between television and truth

Even in the midst of the current uprising against police violence, though, Black survivors and Black families have sought out help from law enforcement. But all too often, their experiences do not reflect what is portrayed on shows like SVU.

That was the case for Oluwatoyin Salau, a 19-year-old Black activist from Tallahassee who went to the police on June 5 after being sexually assaulted only to be told that they would need more evidence before they could investigate her case. Two days later, Salau went missing, and on June 13, she was found dead at the home of a man who ultimately admitted to raping her multiple times. In the days following Salau’s death, her friend Ashley Laurent—one of the last people to see her alive—expressed both anger and frustration that the police chose not to do more when given the chance. “I personally feel like they could have investigated and gotten DNA,” Laurent told the Tallahassee Democrat. “That’s where they failed her. She could still be alive.” 

Pieces of Salau’s story were echoed weeks later in Milwaukee, where police failed to investigate the case of a Black 13-year-old girl and a Black 15-year-old girl who had gone missing. When the young girls’ parents went to law enforcement with fears that their children had been kidnapped by sex traffickers, police declined to investigate, stating that the girls did not meet the criteria for an Amber Alert. Ultimately, members of the community formed their own search patrol and found the girls along with two other missing children at the home of a child predator who was running what appeared to be a sex trafficking ring.

In both of these cases and countless others, justice was denied not because of a failure to report, or a snag that was hit over the course of the investigation, but because of law enforcement’s refusal to do the job they are purportedly designed to perform—a job that TV has conditioned us to believe we can entrust them with.

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.