‘Law & Order’ actress Diane Neal responds to the John Oliver episode

Prosecutor Casey Novak’s job was simple — convict bad guys that New York City Police Department detectives had arrested and give rape victims some semblance of justice. And on more than 100 hour-long episodes of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” she almost always got it done.

Diane Neal, the actress who played Novak for seven seasons on the TV crime drama, thought that’s how it worked in real life. Police worked with victims to catch scumbags, rarely arrested the wrong guy and almost never left a case unsolved. Then, prosecutors sent the criminals to prison.

“I’m embarrassed to admit, I used to think the way it worked on the show was like real life,” Neal wrote on Twitter. “Then I found out the hard way I was wrong.”

Neal was reacting to the latest episode of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” in which host John Oliver spent nearly 30 minutes blasting the “Law & Order” franchise for having “propagandized” police and prosecutors for more than 30 years. More than 1,200 episodes of “Law & Order” and its numerous spinoffs have created a distorted view of how the American criminal justice system works — or doesn’t, Oliver told viewers in a clip that had racked up more than 2.8 million YouTube views by early wednesday

Representatives for Neal and “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.

Over the course of dozens of seasons and hundreds of episodes, the “Law & Order” universe has delivered a core thesis to its viewers, Oliver said: “The cops deeply care about getting justice for victims, and their gut instincts mean that they almost always get the job done in the end.”

That’s not true. The vast majority of crimes reported to police in the United States go unsolved, although those include lower-profile property crimes like burglary and theft, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center report. But even when it comes to dealing with crimes with the highest stakes — violent crime — law enforcement officials successfully clear less than half of the cases that are reported.

The dogged endurance of ‘Law & Order’

The criminal justice system’s track record with rape is particularly bad. Less than a third of sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement, according to the nonprofit advocacy group RAINN, or the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. About 16 percent of those reports lead to an arrest, while 9 percent result in a felony conviction.

But viewers watching “SVU” wouldn’t know about low conviction rates or reports of understaffed special victims units. The show offers up a narrative with a consistent message: that the system holds bad people accountable, Oliver said.

During the segment, Oliver played one clip of Wolf, the “Law & Order” creator, in which he proclaimed himself “unabashedly pro-law enforcement” and then another in which Wolf called his shows “probably the best recruiting poster that you could have for being a New York City cop.”

Oliver agreed but noted that “a recruiting poster is always going to be a propagandized hero-washed version of the truth, a truth which is more often than not very ugly.”

That doesn’t mean people can’t watch it, Oliver added, but viewers should keep in mind they’re watching fiction. “It is important to remember just how far it is from representing anything resembling reality,” he said.

Those misconceptions can have real world impacts. Researchers found that “viewers of 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,” according to a 2015 study in Criminal Justice and Behavior titled “The Role of Entertainment Media in Perceptions of Police Use of Force,” which Oliver cited on his program.

Those real world impacts cut the other way, too, said Mariska Hargitay, the “SVU” actress who plays Olivia Benson, the tough but empathetic detective at the heart of the show. In a 2020 interviewHargitay said fans have told her that, because of “SVU,” they knew what to do when they were raped, made sure to report it and had a rape kit done — “and had faith in that.”

“Most of all they didn’t feel alone anymore,” Hargitay said, as her voice broke. “And to me, when I started hearing those stories is when I knew that it wasn’t just a TV show anymore.

“It was so much more,” she added.

Neal, the actress who played the hard-charging sex crimes prosecutor, said she learned “the hard way” that the criminal justice system she helped create on-screen is a fantasy, although she didn’t elaborate about how in her tweet. She asked people to tell her if “SVU” had given “victims who report sex crimes in real life unrealistic expectations that the cops will care or crimes will be solved.”

A woman replied that when she reported her case to the police, she didn’t feel believed and that no one followed up on her case. “When I called to check on my case years later instead of being transferred to a detective I was hung up on,” she added. It’s been nine years since she reported what happened to the police, “and I still have no information on my case.”

Neal thanked her for sharing and agreed that there would be “a LOT more justice” if Olivia Benson were a real detective.

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