Advancing From Entry Level Law Enforcement Roles Into The Special Victims Unit

By Dr. Kelly Boone, Purdue Global Faculty

My Career: First Came Law Enforcement Roles 

After several years of working in patrol as a law enforcement officer and in multiple specialty units such as COPS and truancy, I gained enough experience to enter the Criminal Investigation Division, commonly referred to as CID. I began in the Burglary Unit, which was the perfect training ground for new investigators despite the intense caseload that averaged 40 to 60 cases per month. I was also exposed to the other CID units, where I first developed an interest in the Special Victims Unit (SVU).

Transitioning Into the SVU Unit 

After a year and a half in burglary, I was presented with an opportunity to transfer to the SVU and did not hesitate to make the transition. One of the appealing aspects of SVU is the caseload (especially when compared to the Burglary Unit). The caseload in SVU is typically 6 to 10 per month, which is reasonable because it allows detectives time to complete the necessary investigative processes associated with maltreatment cases. Unlike on television, where it seems detectives work on one case at a time and work all times of the day and night, in reality, investigators are assigned to work a shift, and your supervisor will distribute the cases to the detectives in the unit as they come in.

I spent just over 7 years in the SVU, acting as the Lead Detective for the last 3 years. The subject matter of the cases was difficult, particularly when it pertained to children, but that difficulty is what made the work so worthwhile. What struck me over and over again were the stark differences between the reality of working in SVU and the portrayal of SVU on television. While there are benefits of shedding light on these horrendous crimes, there are also dangers in creating misconceptions.

Misconceptions About Working Within the SVU Versus What You See in TV 

  • One of the biggest falsehoods put forth on television is the speed at which cases can be investigated and solved. To begin, once you determine you need a search warrant, the timeframe from writing the search warrant to getting it signed by a judge can be anywhere from 2 to 4 hours, depending on the experience of the investigator and the processes associated with obtaining a search warrant for that specific jurisdiction. Next, DNA and toxicology reports do not come back in a matter of hours or even a day. Depending on the nature of the case, DNA results can take days to weeks to come back from the lab, and the processing of toxicology often requires at least a few weeks. I once received DNA results for a burglary case I investigated over a year after I submitted the sample for processing.

  • Additionally, certain cases require specific personnel to handle particular aspects of the investigation. For example, interviewing child victims takes a special skillset and often requires specialized training. Some jurisdictions require investigators to use Children's Advocacy Centers or Child Protection Teams when the need to interview a child arises. Law enforcement officers without specialized training should not interview children for maltreatment cases unless exigency exists. Television, due to the need to fit the story into an hour-long episode, often portrays any detective in the unit interviewing child victims, which simply should not happen in real life.

  • The final misconception I'd like to address involves society's perception of law enforcement and our ability to not only solve, but more importantly, close cases with a conviction. When the media gets involved, these societal pressures are magnified and the difficulties of the profession are compounded. Many of these perceptions and pressures are based on people's understanding of law enforcement from television. Unlike fictional cases, allegation alone does not necessarily warrant the filing of criminal charges against a suspect, especially when the victim and offender are adults and the case appears to come down to the issue of consent. Furthermore, not filing criminal charges against a suspect does not mean that law enforcement or the prosecutor's office does not believe the victim, but rather it likely means there isn't enough evidence to move forward with criminal charges.

What is the point in highlighting these differences between fact and fiction? It is to emphasize the importance of the work done by law enforcement and the challenges faced by the profession. Detectives must sift through the extraneous distractions of the media and false perceptions in order to focus on the facts of the case. The evidence, investigative processes, and rule of law must always guide a detective's actions, along with proper training and an adherence to ethical performance.

Dr. Kelly Boone is a faculty member at Purdue Global. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Purdue Global.