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Law & Order Depicts Police Procedures and Criminal Justice

Accuracy of Criminal Justice Depiction on Television

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.


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Law & Order is an NBC Universal television law enforcement drama set in New York City. The show follows a small team of New York City homicide detectives from the fictional 27th Precinct and the same small team of lawyers from the Manhattan District Attorney's office.

The format consists of the investigation of and prosecution of a crime whose immediate aftermath is depicted in the show's opening lead-in segment.

Law & Order shows more legal proceedings than just a trial most often including the arraignment and variously trial preparation, indictment proceedings before a Grand Jury, allocution upon entering guilty pleas,

In the opening lead-in segment of the show a character discovers, witnesses, or becomes victim of a crime (usually murder).

These scenes often contain connections or hints foreshadowing key aspects of the case and are immediately followed by police making a preliminary examination of the crime scene in which the detectives make their first observations and theories.

The plots often have a resemblance to actual cases and the phrase "ripped from the headlines" is used to advertise the show although a text disclaimer within each episode emphasizes that the story and its characters are fictional.

Technical Accuracy of Law & Order

Unlike real crimes, the detectives rarely encounter a simple murder where the perpetrator does little to hide his guilt. Instead, the detectives often have few or no good clues to start with-- they may not even know the identity of the victim-- and must chase down several dead ends before finding a strong suspect. Towards the middle of a show, the police begin working with the prosecutors to make the arrest, and an arraignment scene is usually shown. The police may appear again to testify in court or arrest a subsequent suspect, but most investigation in the second segment is done by the assistant DAs, who always consult with the District Attorney for advice on the case.

The same detectives always working with the same prosecutors is not a realistic depiction of the legal system, nor is the number of high-profile, highly complicated cases taken on, nor their success in solving nearly all of them. In the actual legal system, trials often take several months to complete, whereas trials on Law & Order tend to take no more than a week. Furthermore, most real cases do not go to trial and are settled with a plea bargain, whereas the trial is a signature part of nearly every Law & Order episode. However, the characters and process depicted can be seen as amalgams of the entire legal system, and the technically unrealistic legal process as a simplifying plot device necessary for the show to be possible, thus maintaining suspension of disbelief.

One can reasonably take the view that the cases depicted on Law & Order are not all the ones the detectives handle, but only those in which they are working with the specific prosecutors. Likewise, the cases depicted may not represent all those on which the prosecutors work, but only major, complicated cases which proceed to trial. A significant amount of time compression (compressing events that may occur over a period of months into a one-hour show format) may also be assumed.

In contrast to many other detective shows, the protagonists of Law & Order do not always win their cases; episodes frequently finish without full resolution. Sometimes the true facts of the crime are left ambiguous to the audience. Sometimes the case against the offender is won, but justice still seems lacking. Often the viewer identifies with the defendant and wonders whether punishment under the law is even appropriate.

The show's cast of police and lawyers are portrayed as basically honest professionals, very rarely straying from the boundaries of accepted procedure and usually solving crimes by the book, although occasional cases hit home and the detectives and/or ADAs become somewhat personally invested in the case. Perhaps the scenes involving lawyers stray from reality a little more, with a far higher proportion of cases going to trial than in real life (although plea bargaining plays a far greater role than in other television series), and with trial lawyers sometimes acting as pseudo-detectives.

Like the lawyers and police on the show, the victims and witnesses of crimes speak in pithy, perfunctory sentences that help to expedite the plot with a minimum of dialogue, even when the same characters are visibly upset or under cross examination. Frequently, questioning of key witnesses lasts a minute or less, even in real time. Expert witnesses typically perform infallibly under cross examination without equivocation. However, the defense's expert witnesses, particularly psychiatrists, are regularly shown to be advocates of controversial or fringe ideologies such as Repressed memory or Black Rage. Forensic experts are portrayed as almost omniscient and forensic evidence is never portrayed as botched or questionable; acquittals are only gained in the face of forensic evidence when a defense lawyer successfully argues for its inadmissibility on a sophistic or cynical "technicality". Like many legal dramas the show has thus been accused of providing an unrealistic portrayal of the criminal justice system.

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