Law & Order: A Law Enforcement Perspective
By Heather Gray
My first order of business is to thank those who provided valuable feedback to my first column. It is from healthy discussion and insight that we learn.
As a Detective in a child abuse unit I have innumerable experiences that stay with me, even now. When Law & Order: Special Victims Unit made its debut I was interested to see how they would deal with the impact that Detectives face in the wake of very disturbing cases. Human beings are capable of unbelievable cruelty. It is absolutely impossible to remain detached from the horrors we, who work in this field, witness. Over the years I had many police officers, typically men, say to me that there is no way they could work in a child abuse unit and they expressed admiration for those of us who could. What they inevitably stated was that they would have a difficult time maintaining professionalism (which really meant "restraint") when dealing with a suspect who had committed a horrific deed against a child. They often stated that they worried they might be prone to mete out their own brand of vigilante justice.
Although I could certainly understand their reticence I have to say this: I firmly believe that the vast majority of Detectives who venture into any type of 'special victims unit' are there because they desire to make a difference and truly help children who find themselves in impossible situations. The responsibility that befalls special victims unit Detectives is that we must gather any and all evidence that may exist. And, to acquire that evidence as early on in the investigation as possible, before it can be lost, altered or tampered with. From there, we have to evaluate the circumstances, ascertain what likely happened and zero in on the culprit and his motive(s).
A crucial part of any investigation, of course, is that of interviewing the suspect(s). As Detectives we are extensively trained in interview techniques, statement analysis, behaviour analysis and human psychology. Our purpose in the interview is to create a rapport with the individual and then to get to the core of the matter. No matter what type of crime presents itself, there are similarities within the interview dynamics. Human beings normally want to tell the truth all of the time; this is why polygraph (lie detector) tests can often be a valuable investigative tool. Most people find that keeping secrets is an incredible burden. Further, human beings all yearn to be validated. And, more importantly, we all want to have people understand our intentions, not merely judge our actions. A skilled interviewer will explore themes likely to strike a chord with the suspect and that will allow him to admit to the crime and yet somehow save face as well as some semblance of dignity. I recall more than one case whereby a man sexually interfered with his daughter and, during the interview, he accepted the theme that he was merely preparing her for adulthood by introducing her to her own sexuality. He could not bring himself to take responsibility for forcing his sexual urges onto her, but he could accept that he did it "for her own good". Twisted logic? Yes, but the bottom line is that he admitted to the behavior and was subsequently convicted. A skilled interviewer does not have to buy into the suspect's logic, but rather just agree 'in principle' with his particular perspective. Consider this insight the next time you see an interview/interrogation scene on Law & Order.
Although delving into child abuse cases, day after day, was emotionally draining, it was the most rewarding policing I did in my 20 years. That's because I felt the incredible responsibility of representing those who either could not speak for themselves or who had no power. It is definitely not for everyone.
There have been several episodes of SVU that have shown the impact of a particular case on the detectives. For Olivia Benson, having been the product of a rape, the impact on her of similar crimes is significant. We sometimes see her struggling to defend a rape victim when her colleagues are less than sensitive to the matter.
For Elliot Stabler, a family man with teenage daughters, he feels most profoundly those cases involving children. As a parent myself I can attest to the difficulty of dealing with depravity and then returning home, my arms aching to hug my children, and to reassure myself that they are okay. We, who have been Detectives and explored the ugliest sides of humanity, cannot help but be changed by the experience. I could see, almost daily, the change within myself. It was a loss of innocence that can never be reversed. I now know too much. And, just like SVU's Olivia and Elliot, I bear the scars of what I have seen and my jaded viewpoint slips into almost every interaction I have with my children or other significant people in my life. In one episode, Elliot had been struggling to understand eating disorders, during a particular investigation. From that, he went home and found himself scrutinizing his eldest daughter's eating habits, starting a power struggle with her over what and how much she ate. It is difficult to refrain from doing similar things. Have you ever watched a documentary or a movie and then found yourself similarly evaluating your own life? It's human nature. We make comparisons and draw conclusions all of the time and we are often unaware of the process.
I'm frequently asked for advice, by parents and child-care workers, on how to protect children from abuses and how to detect if anything untoward may be happening. The best advice I can offer is your intuition about significant decisions, evaluations and subtle clues in your child's life. Often, as parents, we experience non-specific worry that merely serves to cloud our intuitive responses. There is a way to counter that, and it is to become aware of a new view of intuition. Human beings are animals, but throughout our evolution, we have subjugated our extremely valuable intuition in favor of logic. We are also very prone to deny any suggestion that violence or evil could actually pervade our lives. We are loathe to accept that someone we know may be capable of dastardly behavior, especially towards us or our loved ones.
In the words of Gavin de Becker, California-based world-renowned expert at predicting violent behavior, "the logic brain couldn't do a thing...once the situation became critical. The logic brain is plodding and unoriginal. It is burdened with judgment, slow to accept reality, and spends valuable energy thinking about how things ought to be, used to be, or could be. The logic brain has strict boundaries and laws it wants to obey, but the wild brain obeys nothing, conforms to nothing, answers to nobody, and will do whatever it takes. It is unfettered by emotion, politics, politeness, and as illogical as the wild brain may sometimes seem, it is, in the natural order of things, completely logical. It just doesn't care to convince us of anything by using logic. In fact, it doesn't give a damn what we think."
"To tap into this resource, to reinvest in our intuition, to know how to avoid danger, to know, for example, whom to keep our children away from, we must listen to internal warnings while they are still whispers. The voice that knows all about how to protect children may not always be the loudest, but it is the wisest."
To learn more about tapping into your intuition, for your own safety or for your children, I recommend two books by Gavin de Becker. They are both available in paperback and are an easy, fascinating, and compelling, read. Check out The Gift of Fear (ISBN # 0440226198) and Protecting the Gift; Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) (ISBN # 0440509009).
I am eager to see the newest Law & Order offerings this fall, especially the new series debut, Criminal Intent. It is a criminal mind's rationalization and intent that is truly fascinating and worthy of evaluation and understanding. My next column will focus on the new fall offerings and, of course, offer a law enforcement perspective. Stay tuned.


whaddya think?