By Helen White
Olivia Benson. Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Nick Stokes. These names are familiar to those who surf the channels between crime shows, watching detectives take down criminals in often-grisly cases. But the reality of the “Special Victims Unit” is far more complex.
“They’re obviously very entertaining, I can’t say that I don’t watch them myself on occasion,” said Bridget Coit, a detective on the Eau Claire police force.
But it’s not quite the spectacle that police procedural dramas would have you believe, added Coit, who works in the sensitive crimes division.
She continued, her laugh fading as she described the impact of entertainment media on the average citizen.
“A lot of them portray completely unrealistic information…so much of our society is only educated by what they see on TV, so to talk about…how it really works, on a local basis, that can be really frustrating for people, because that’s just not how they think it works.”
Coit cited the example of a home burglary: if there’s not a suspect, but police are able to get DNA from scene, there isn’t much they can do but allow the evidence to sit idly in the system.
“Our state crime lab is so overloaded that they legitimately won’t even analyze it…until there’s a suspect to compare it to,” she explained, refuting the idea that the computer and lab technicians just “do their thing” until they find a DNA match.
“No state that I know of has the resources to do that,” she said of this immediate gratification that happens so conveniently for television detectives. “TV gives a lot of misperceptions.”
And sometimes, even those who work within the legal system don’t have it on their side. “When you try to get a child out of a bad situation and it just doesn’t work…even though you have that gut feeling and you aren’t comfortable leaving that child in that environment, the law prohibits you from doing certain things.”
Detective Sergeant Mark Pieper, also on the Eau Claire police force, said he doesn’t think he could handle what the sensitive crimes detectives do every day.
“It takes a special kind of person to do what they do,” he explained, and discussed how his fatherhood would make it difficult for him to face the acts of horror that children too often face.
“It would have been too hard for me to separate the job from personal life,” Pieper continued. “How do you deal with a guy who just did the worst of the worst to a child? It takes a certain kind of person to be able to compartmentalize that stuff and stay focused.”
The job, Coit reassures, isn’t all bad.
“For the most part, I feel like I’m helping,” she explains. “The reason I got into this job was that I did truly want to help people, and we get to see people on their worst days and…get to work them out of their worst days.”
Working in sensitive crimes, Coit says that being able to help children take back control of their lives is rewarding.
“[They’re] kind of the most vulnerable part of our society, they don’t have control over their lives, their lives are pretty much dictated for them,” she said. “Getting to help them get out of situations they couldn’t get out of themselves is gratifying.”
Coit emphasized the polarization between both the rewards and the emotional taxes that come with a job in sensitive crimes.
“You see amazing suffering, but you also see amazing overcoming of it,” she said. “Although we see a lot of bad, we see a lot of good.”