I was a 'Law & Order: SVU' superfan. Then my views on the police changed.

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Libby Torres
·8 min read
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law and order svu
Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay in "Law & Order: SVU." NBCUniversal
  • "Law & Order: SVU" used to be one of my favorite shows of all time.

  • But recent events, combined with my growing interest in prison abolition, have changed that.

  • It's hard to watch a show that glorifies law enforcement when my thoughts on policing have changed.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Like any other fan of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," I took pride in being able to recite the crime drama's opening statement by heart.

"In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous," I'd chant along with the narrator, in his deep, imposing voice.

My favorite part of the statement, however, was the end: "The dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories," followed by the show's signature "dun-dun."

This pithy opening statement is as much the show's calling card as the ripped-from-the-headlines plots and memorable characters, like Detective Fin Tutuola (Ice-T) and former detective-turned-captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay).

At one point in time, I ate it all up.

When I moved to New York in 2014, I quickly fell in love with the show for a variety of reasons

As a college student, I watched the older seasons of "SVU" on Hulu whenever I needed a break from homework or class.

I'd just moved to New York to go to New York University, and seeing the city through the faux-gritty, highly-stylized lens of the show was enticing, to say the least. During episodes, I'd excitedly point out city landmarks and any mention of our university to my poor roommate.

Watching "SVU" (and keeping a lookout for any signs that they'd be filming a scene for an upcoming episode near me) quickly became as integral to my nascent New York experience as hanging out in Washington Square Park or eating dollar pizza.

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Ice-T and Mariska Hargitay on "Law & Order: SVU." NBCUniversal

As I got older, and as living in New York began to feel like less of a novelty, I focused less on the show's metropolitan trappings, and more on the actions of the characters. I was reading plenty of feminist theory and took issue with the way Detective Stabler (Christopher Meloni) handled sexual-assault victims or potential suspects. There was a lot of victim-blaming and use of excessive force by the detectives in those early seasons, and I didn't hesitate to call out the show when I saw it.

Still, I remained a complete "SVU" devotee and rationalized my borderline obsession with the show (flaws and all) by explaining that it brought some much-needed attention to real-life issues like intimate partner violence, human trafficking, and the rape-kit backlog - something star Mariska Hargitay has been working to end offscreen.

And for a while, it worked. I was able to ignore the show's less-than-perfect moments and watch my beloved crime drama in peace.

But things changed for me after numerous Black people were killed during altercations with police

As the Black Lives Matter movement began to gain traction across the US, something about my love of "SVU" began to nag at me. Every day, it seemed, Black and brown individuals were dying at the hands of police. And at NYU, the deaths of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and others were regularly discussed on campus and in class. We organized protests in support of the victims, and talked about the role of police in their deaths - and whether or not they would have occurred had the victims been white.

It soon became clear, at least to me, that the role of police needed to be reexamined in all facets of our lives. Too often, officers seemed like they defaulted to violent tactics instead of de-escalation - even when the victims were children, as in the case of 12-year-old Rice.

And the more I thought about the ways in which police officers seemed to abuse their power, the angrier I got.

Eventually, my growing outrage at the racism and police brutality that seemed to be becoming a regular part of our lives caused me to re-examine my love of "SVU," especially after I graduated college and continued learning more about prison abolition and what "defunding the police" meant.

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Protesters sit at an intersection in West Hollywood during demonstrations following the death of George Floyd on May 30, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. Warrick Page/Getty Images

As I started educating myself on topics like prison abolition, I knew I couldn't continue to watch 'SVU' with a clear conscience

Reading authors like Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis, who brilliantly denounce the police force and the prison industrial complex respectively, have helped me realize that we don't need a world where arrests and incarceration are the norm. I've learned that if we could institute more community-based reforms - relying on a framework known as transformative justice - instead of ceding control to police officers (whose jobs were born from slave patrols), we might actually have less so-called crime in our communities.

It wasn't until last year, however, when the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor caused another rightful reckoning of our collective relationship to law enforcement, that I was able to precisely understand why I could no longer enjoy the show like I once had.

The efforts of Benson, Stabler and the other fictional detectives at Manhattan's 16th police precinct to stop sexual violence no longer seemed like an entertaining show to watch. And whenever I tried to lose myself in the show that was once an integral part of my personality, I felt disturbed, and a bit guilty.

For how could I watch a show that glorifies detectives, and law enforcement as a whole, when that same institution seemed so inextricably linked to the (often deadly) violence inflicted daily on Black and brown bodies? How could I feel satisfaction watching Benson catch a vicious sexual predator when the horrific image of now-fired police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck while he gasps for air was still fresh in my mind?

The "SVU" detectives are portrayed as intelligent, sympathetic enforcers of the law, who care about the communities they serve, and do their best to empathize with potential suspects as well as victims. They're meant to seem far removed from the officers linked to the deaths of Black people - a different type of cop or the "good apples," you could say.

The show has even tried to address some of the issues stemming from police brutality in recent episodes - in the season 22 premiere, for example, Benson is accused of having a racial bias after she arrests a Black man (who's later proven innocent) for a sexual assault. And in the season's seventh episode, police malpractice threatens to derail a sexual-assault case the squad is building.

While in the past, the tendency of "SVU" to rip plots straight from the headlines was a bit amusing, now, it doesn't seem right to have a show that's so focused on portraying police officers as the "good guys" dive deep into race-based issues.

In fact, it's downright disturbing.

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"Law & Order: SVU" is currently in its 22nd season. NBCUniversal

Even though it's just a show, 'SVU' is worth including in conversations about police brutality and abolition of the police system

I know, of course, that my outrage and pain are only a fraction of that felt by the Black community on a daily basis. As a white-passing, college-educated Latinx woman working in a white-collar industry, I am afforded daily privileges that many can only dream of having. And no longer being able to enjoy a TV show is hardly an inconvenience, considering that too many families have lost loved ones to police brutality.

I believe the police should be abolished. I believe that prisons shouldn't exist. And as much as it pains me to say it, I believe that shows like "Law & Order: SVU" only glorify the roles of law enforcement while ignoring some of the profession's serious, and deadly, flaws.

I understand that it's only a show, and that during our nationwide reckoning with racism and police brutality, we have a lot more important things to focus on. But I've finally realized that I can no longer enjoy watching a show that centers the experiences of law enforcement, while often glossing over the trauma and violence real-life police officers sometimes inflict on those they're meant to serve. (In Minneapolis, for example, where Floyd was killed, police used force against Black people at seven times the rate of white people.)

Shows glorifying the roles of police are only going to complicate matters in terms of reform. Right now, we need to value the stories of the community as a whole - and not just those of the "dedicated detectives" of the Special Victims Unit.

Read the original article on Insider