The World

Our national obsession with “Law and Order: SVU” comes with good reason

Without proper training or personnel, how can any victim of assault or rape feel comfortable approaching their local police station?

I’m not a fan of typical television, but I am addicted to Law and Order: SVU (Special Victims Unit)I still can’t figure out what it is that I love so much about this show, but I am obsessed. The writing, the acting, and the visceral content that they cover, all makes for a perfect formula that grabs my attention and doesn’t let go.

The show has done a phenomenal job bringing light to the serious holes within the justice system: from the five year statute of limitation on rape cases, to the terrifying backlog issue of untested rape kits sitting in evidence.

SVU departments are rare in the real world, but the fictional characters of SVU remind viewers of how important the job really is. The stark reality of cases such as rape, child abuse, and domestic violence are staggering to behold, and not enough police officers or departments are prepared to handle the cases.

Without proper training or personnel, how can any victim of assault or rape feel comfortable approaching their local police station? How can rapists be held responsible for their actions if no one is bothering to find and prosecute them?

This is why every state and city needs a special victims unit. It could be the answer to preventing future harm for so many men, women, and children.

When I first realized that SVU departments didn’t exist in every city, I was shocked. Even to this day, I am terrified for any victim that has to report their attack at a precinct. Far too often I’ve read stories in my local news where victims recant their attack and are pressured by police who don’t know how to handle the sensitive nature of assaults, and being harassed further by their peers and the public.

Rape and sexual assault victims are treated so horribly in our world due to rape culture that is so rampant in our media, and in the criminal justice system.

Here are the facts about rape convictions: out of every 3 rape cases, only 1 will be reported. Of those that are reported, only 5% are investigated by police.

Even if an assault does extend to court, the victim is slut shamed and painted as a deviant in an attempt to dissuade the jury from believing the attack was “unwanted.” The fact that victims are forced to stand trial in front of their rapist is abhorrent in itself, but the process that unfolds is no doubt a nightmare. Rarely do rapists go to prison – it is estimated that only 3% ever see a jail cell – and even when they do spend time behind bars, it might only be for a couple months.

The reality is upsetting and in need of some serious change; and this is where special victims units can come in.

Sex crime units (another name for SVU) focus on the need to handle assault and rape cases with care, and by a trained professional (both in law enforcement and in social work or psychiatry).

They are aware of the numbers and the presence of rape culture, and they do their best to work with the victim’s best interest in mind or a victim centered approach; as is suggested by the Human Rights Watch’s 2013 report on “Improving Police Response to Sexual Assault.”

Currently, only a handful of the departments exist in United States; including New York City, New Haven, CT, Douglas County, CO, a couple county offices in Florida, and a few others.

The New York City department, the inspiration behind the Law and Order spinoff, was created in 1974 and the first of its kind. The District Attorney who created the program stated in an interview: “When somebody’s burglarized or robbed, they get over it. [But when they’re raped], I don’t think they ever get over it. So they’re entitled to special consideration in the criminal justice system.” The NYC department realized as they grew that they were training themselves on how to prosecute and treat these cases. They were making the model for policing sex crimes as they were working.

Now, with the added advantage of a DNA database and digital cataloguing, SVU departments should be installed everywhere. The trouble is finding the funding and the people to handle these heinous cases, as well as the administration taking the needs of the victims seriously.

Luckily in more rural areas, accredited education that focuses on social work and criminal justice are becoming readily available. Nevada in particular has done a stellar job of extending their educational reach, since many of the major cities are spread out across the state (with an extensive amount of travel between them).

The University of Nevada, Reno, recognized the growing need for social workers in rural areas and opened up their online Master in Social Work program. Schools like UNR are filling the education gap that previously prevented professionals from understanding the needs of victims of severe crises and crimes. Lack of education is now becoming an outdated excuse.

Instead, the behavior and attitude associated with these crimes has become the biggest obstacle to tackle. Which is the also the biggest issue within the police force across many factors – race, investigating internal misconduct, sexism, and rape culture.

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As actress Mariska Hargitay (portraying Olivia Benson on Law and Order SVU) continued her career on the show, she noticed the reality of victim-blaming and lack of police support as well. In 2004 she began her own organization, the Joyful Heart Foundation, aimed at helping rape survivors and assault victims find joy after trauma.

Joyful Heart also aims to bring education to the masses and was awarded nearly $80 million dollars for their efforts in bringing awareness to the rape-kit backlog issue. That award was then distributed to 40 different law enforcement group across 20 different states to help them process and catalog their backlog.

In a recent interview, Mariska opened up about her continued fight to bring awareness: “Survivors still largely face the same cultural attitudes that contribute to silencing them and preventing them from coming forward as when I started on the show, and despite the prevalence of these crimes — to which statistics attest — these issues remain the most underfunded, under-researched, under-regarded social ills of our day.”

It’s a rare moment when a celebrity can use their platform for spreading knowledge on serious issues. Mariska Hargitay is a blessing to the continued efforts of victim advocates, but it’s important to remember the reality of the situation.

Sex Crimes units should be in every city to help prevent child abuse, exploitation, and sexual assaults, but that reality may be far off in our future unless the current police system makes some serious adjustments. These heinous crimes are all too common, and the televised depiction of how they are handled is far from the truth. Everyone could benefit from trained professional within special victims, but victims rarely see that help they so desperately need.