Prosecutor Casey Novak has a strong track record. Over numerous seasons of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” the tough and persistent assistant district attorney convicts scores of sex offenders and delivers justice to their victims.
But the actor who played her says she’s since realized that TV doesn’t mirror reality.
Diane Neal recently invited her social media followers to weigh in on whether the show gave viewers a false impression of how law enforcement handles sex crimes – a discussion that was sparked by a recent episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” (CNN and HBO, which airs the satirical show, share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery).
“I’m embarrassed to admit, I used to think the way it worked on the show was like real life. Then I found out the hard way I was wrong,” Neal tweeted, responding to a person who said they felt police didn’t believe them when they came forward about their assault. “Thank you for sharing the story of your real experience. #iamsorry.”
When another person shared with her that the sexual assault victims they knew all regretted reporting their assault, Neal replied: “I feel that 100%.”
John Oliver targeted the massively popular spinoff on the latest episode of “Last Week Tonight,” saying that the show’s unrealistic portrayals of how law enforcement responds to sex crimes amounted to propaganda.
On “Law & Order: SVU,” which depicts a special force of the New York Police Department that deals with sex crimes, police typically arrest the correct perpetrator and collect and process DNA evidence swiftly. The prosecutors, in turn, bring the cases to trial and convict the perpetrators. Case closed.
The reality is much different. An internal NYPD investigation in 2018 criticized the department’s handling of sexual assault cases. As a result of inadequate staffing, training and large caseloads, the report said, detectives and police officers often responded insensitively or dismissively to sexual assault victims while victims were rarely updated on the status of their cases.
Another study from researchers at RTI International last year found that the NYPD struggled to interview and arrest suspects – while detectives identified suspects in 82% of sexual assault cases, suspects were only interviewed 28% of the time, according to the report. That study also found that investigators closed a majority of sex crime cases by citing that investigative leads had been “exhausted,” even though in many of those cases, researchers determined there were missed opportunities for follow-up.
A representative for Dick Wolf, the creator of “Law & Order,” did not respond to a request for comment.
At least one other actor from the show has another perspective on the matter. In a 2020 special celebrating the long-running “SVU,” Mariska Hargitay, who plays detective Olivia Benson, spoke of the positive impact the show had on sexual assault survivors.
“I have so many times encountered people that have said because of this show, they knew what to do after their assault. Because of this show, they had a rape kit done. Because of this show, they reported and had faith in that. And because of this show, most of all, they didn’t feel alone anymore,” she said.
Others have argued that “Law & Order” and police procedurals more broadly shouldn’t be expected to reflect reality precisely because they are fictional – a point that Oliver acknowledged in his show. But research has shown that audiences who watch crime dramas are “more likely to believe the police are successful at lowering crime, use force only when necessary, and that misconduct does not typically lead to false confessions.”
“I know ‘Law & Order’ is just a TV show. I know it’s meant to be entertainment, and honestly I’m not even telling you not to watch it,” Oliver said. “But it’s important to remember just how far it is from representing anything resembling reality.”