8 ways shows like "Law & Order: SVU" mess with your head

Research suggests people who watch these programs are more likely to overestimate the incidence of crime in America

Published November 15, 2014 1:00PM (EST)

Mariska Hartigay in "Law & Order: SVU"    (Will Hart)
Mariska Hartigay in "Law & Order: SVU" (Will Hart)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet In the United States there is only one kind of show that consistently beats out Sunday night football for ratings: crime dramas.

NCIS, a police procedural about a team of special agents who investigates crimes related to the U.S. Navy, has been the most watched television drama in America for the past five years, and this year it became the most watched in the world. In the 2012-2013 television season, three of the top five most viewed series were crime shows. And fresh procedural blood is being pumped through the airways all the time, from Dick Wolf’s new Chicago PD series to Blue Bloods, which premiered in 2010, and focuses on a family of NYPD officers who literally bear the last name “Reagan.”

Unfortunately, many of these shows do not accurately portray certain aspects of the criminal justice system, and some are downright misleading.

Of course these programs are not documentaries and their purpose is not merely to convey information, but also to entertain. After all, we live in a country that has allowedThe Mentalist, a show about a man who helps the California Bureau of Investigation solve crimes by reading minds, to enter its seventh season, and mercifully its last. But a wealth of research, from the ’80s to the early aughts, suggests that all these loose cannon lies can have a significant effect on those who tune in, making them more fearful of crime and more conservative in their views of the criminal justice system. This happens, in large part, because people who make television also want to make a lot of money off riveted viewers, not depressing them with stories of how our justice system actually functions. “The point of these shows is not to inform the citizenry it’s to sell cars and keep people’s attention, so police procedurals are incredibly dramatized,” says Alex Vitale, who teaches Sociology at Brooklyn College.

It’s no surprise then that there is little truth in the idealized versions of the criminal justice system that these shows are advertising.

1. The rate of violent crimes

No one would watch a medical procedural if the drama consisted of patients coming to the hospital in droves to get their common colds checked out. Instead, each episode tells the story of a patient who is rescued from the clutches of death by the excellent diagnosis or surgical skills of a preternaturally attractive doctor.

Crime shows also apply this logic, where every day in the life of a cop is filled with murder, intrigue, and Snow Patrol songs. Such images are a long way off from truth of the matter. “If you look at a show where every week there are one two three homicides to solve it gives the impression that in that neighborhood homicide is a common occurrence when really they’re quite rare…especially over the last few years,” says Vitale. The rate of violent crime has beendropping steeply since the early ’90s; in the past two decades the murder rate has decreased by half.

Meanwhile, arrests for misdemeanor drug offenses in major cities throughout the country haverisen dramatically since the late ’80s and early ’90s when the war on drugs and broken windows policing kicked down the door into a new era of criminalizing blacks and Latinos. In New York, for example, where so many of these police procedurals take place, the rate of misdemeanor arrests has increased 190% percent in the last 30 years, while violent crime in New York City decreased 71% between 1993-2012. Arrests for marijuana possession, one of the most common misdemeanors, are governed by racial bias in nearly every county in the country.

And yet crime procedurals continue to fuel the false notion that violent crime is an epidemic in American cities. A 2009 study out of Perdue University found that watching cop shows like Law and Order, CSI, Cold Case, and The Closerhad an impact on what viewers thought of the criminal justice system. In particular, the study discovered that people who watched crime shows estimated two and a half times more real-life deaths due to murder than non-viewers. According to Susan Huelsing Sarapin, one of the authors of the study, “Heavy TV-crime viewers consistently overestimated the frequency of crime in the real world."

2. Clearance rates

Perhaps the greatest crime of wishful thinking perpetrated by these shows is that at the end of a 40-minute episode, the perpetrator is nearly always brought to justice. In this sense, the television series enjoyed most by American adults have barely made it past the Scooby Doo level of open-and-shut whodunit mysteries. As Vitale put it, “On tv every crime gets solved but in the real world less than half of crimes get solved.” In 2012, for instance, 62.5% of murder cases were cleared, meaning that suspects were arrested, charged, and turned over to the court for prosecution. And don’t even get me started on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Taking into consideration both the high number of rapes that go underreported and the low percentage of prosecutions, The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) estimatesthat only 3 out of every 100 rapists will ever see the inside of a jail cell.

3. The race of officers and criminals

Crime shows are also riddled with problems of representation and racial stereotypes of the criminal justice system. One 2004 study, which analyzed racial representation in Law and Orderand NYPD Blue, found that blacks are shown as suspects 40 to 50% more often than as victims. They also found whites are about twice as likely to be shown as victims, rather than offenders. Furthermore, as the study notes, “even if blacks are not shown disproportionately as offenders, compared to Whites, their portrayals still reinforce the stereogype of the ‘young black male’ criminal.” According to Gray Cavender and Nancy Jurik’s paper “Policing Race and Gender, ”both primetime crime drama and reality television programs present crime in a manner that heightens fears by whites when they view persons of color,” which has more to do with how minorities are represented than how many, especially given the underrepresentation of black and Latino actors on television.

Police and other non-criminal roles are also more likely to be played by white actors. These shows do get something right in that regard, since minority neighborhoods in this country are still policed by forces that are overwhelmingly whiter than the communities they serve.

Studies differ when they take violent and non-violent crimes into account on whether black and brown people are overrepresented as criminals on crime dramas. But when it comes to who commits the violent crimes on these shows, it’s overwhelmingly characters played by black actors.

4. Plea Deals

“One thing I think the public has almost no idea of is the extent to which our criminal justice system is a plea bargain system,” Steve Gorelick, a professor at the Integrated Media Arts school at Hunter College, told AlterNet. The Sixth Amendment guarantees American citizens the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers, yet the vast majority of criminal cases never make it that far.

In an article on the subject of plea bargaining that appeared in this month’s issue of the New York Review of Books, Jed S. Rakoff writes, “The drama inherent in these guarantees is regularly portrayed in movies and television programs as an open battle played out in public before a judge and jury. But this is all a mirage. In actuality, our criminal justice system is almost exclusively a system of plea bargaining, negotiated behind closed doors and with no judicial oversight. The outcome is very largely determined by the prosecutor alone.”

The article notes that in 2013 8% of all federal criminal charges were thrown out, and of the remaining cases a staggering 97% were resolved through plea bargaining. The reason for this has to do in large part with mandatory minimums, three-strike laws, and drug weight laws, imposed largely in the ‘80s and ‘90s which still govern our legal system today. Faced with colossal penalties for relatively minor crimes, which they may or may not have committed, defendants often opt to plead their case out, whether they’re guilty or not.

But on Law & Order, plea bargaining is rarely viewed as relief from a cruel sentence, and those given the option are almost never innocent of the crime. Instead, the plea bargain is a loophole by which the maniac offender gets off easy, after which she cackles or winks at the well-intentioned investigator. As fictional Law & Order character, executive assistant DA Ben Stone, once said, “If we had perfect cases, we wouldn’t need juries.”

5. Confessions

Law & Order is a show that ran on television in various incarnations for two decades, on which suspects say things like “Okay, you got me. I shot the sheriff, but the deputy, I swear that was some other dude,” before being cuffed and hauled off to prison. These sorts of tired jokes still somehow work in crime procedurals, and, as Gorelick points out, “The idea of the spontaneous confession driven by guilt is so old, it’s a trope of entertainment television.” Perry Mason would not have been able to make a Bob Marley reference, yet it is not unimaginable that he would have cracked a similar kind of joke, more suited to the 1950s.

However this depiction of criminal confession is little more than a police department pipedream. While coerced confessions may not be the norm (and, more to the point, are very difficult to quantify due their secretive nature), we know they happen, some—like the Central Park Five, the West Memphis Three, and dozens tortured under the brutal regime of Jon Burge in Chicago—with violent, life-altering consequences.

In an interview that appeared on the Psych Report a few weeks ago, Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at John Jay College says, “In the interrogation, especially in American style interrogation, people can become so stressed and so broken down and they start to feel so hopeless about their current situation that they come to believe in a rational way a confession is in their best interest.” This sort of situation is almost never dramatized on television.

One scenario that does get constant air-time is where the detective, possessed with an uncanny understanding of the human condition, is able to accurately tell whether the suspect being interrogated is lying, without having to proceed with the messy physical and psychological torture. These scenes are comforting, the way The Mentalist is comforting, but not so accurate. The science of human lie detection capabilities is in strong agreement that even the most astute interrogator doesn’t have much better than a 50% chance of guessing at a suspect’s guilt.

6. Violation of Civil Rights

While we’re on the subject of misrepresentation of confessions, there are several other civil rights issues within the criminal justice system that aren’t accurately depicted or don’t receive any airtime at all on crime procedurals. A few weeks ago, on his weekly HBO show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver reported a brilliant segment on civil asset forfeitures, humorously shaming officers who scour homes and highways hoping to seize cash and other valuables with little or no pretense. The report ended with a mock Law & Order: Civil Asset Forfeiture Unitcommercial in which officers interrogate a pile of cash and arrest an entire house.

The gag nicely illustrated that certain routine practices of police officers that violate the lives and liberties of others are never shown on prime time crime shows. Other activities police procedurals almost never depict: the huge number of violent and unnecessary SWAT raids conducted in this country (or the ease with which an investigator can obtain a warrant, in certain parts of the U.S.), excessive police force or harassment, and racial profiling.

“Violations of civil rights on crime drama programming have rarely been examined,” Vitale told me. He went to explain that, “These portrayals may lead viewers to distrust police officers and other legal officials, or, conversely, to support a system that routinely violates civil rights in the name of catching the ‘bad guys.’”

7. Forensics Aren’t Foolproof and Forensic Technicians Are Not Police

The creator of C.S.I: Crime Scene Investigators, Anthony E. Zuiker has said that the concept for his show relies on, “the notion that blood, hair, saliva, skin, et cetera are forensically designed to tell an investigator what has happened without having any witness to a crime.” This idea, despite its invocation of several real body parts, is highly misleading. DNA evidence is not foolproof, and getting a perfect sample that will lead investigators to the perpetrator is rare. One famous example of forensics leading prosecutors astray occurred in connection to the 2004 Madrid commuter train bombing. The FBI linked Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield to the attack, claiming his fingerprints were a 100% match to those found at the site of the bombing. They were wrong and Mayfield settled with them for $2 million.

Of course forensics can be effective, not just in prosecuting, but also in exonerating those already incarcerated. But their utility can be overestimated. In her study, “’The CSI Effect’: Exposing the Media Myth,” Kimberlianne Podlas discusses the show’s role in promoting the infallibility of science in criminal cases where evidence that relies upon human experience, like eye witness testimony, used to be valued most. She writes that her findings indicate, “if there is any effect of CSI, it is to exalt the infallibility of forensic evidence, favor the prosecution, or pre-dispose jurors toward findings of guilt.”

Also, forensic technicians are not police, they are scientists. They do not carry a badge and gun, therefore do not engage in shootouts constantly, as the characters on CSI do.

8. That Law & Order Voiceover

More than the gore, the cheesy one-liners, and tan suits, Law & Order is known for this: “In the criminal justice system the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”

Aside from the many spinoffs, this voiceover appears at the beginning of each episode and is largely inaccurate. First off, police are sworn uphold the constitution, and protect those who are covered by its laws. In this sense it could be argued that they often protect the interests of the people, or, rather, some people. But they are not “representatives” of the people in any way the word is traditionally used—to describe an elected official, for example, or a lawyer who represents an individual’s interests in court. Also, in the prosecution of criminal cases, a district attorney represents the government, not the people. And, as has been demonstrated throughout this list, these are probably not their stories.

By Hannah K. Gold

MORE FROM Hannah K. Gold

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alternet Csi Law & Order Law & Order: Svu