We all think of Olivia Benson as a crusader for sexual assault survivors. She believes their stories. She defends them against the doubters. And she helps them get justice by sending their rapists and abusers to prison. We see Detective Benson as a model officer of the law. She is the person we would want to find in a police station if, God forbid, we ever had to report a sexual assault.
But there have been times when Detective Benson has utterly failed the people she was supposed to protect. She has disregarded the wishes of victims, abused her power, and allowed people to get hurt due to her gross negligence. Sure, her heart is usually in the right place, but we can’t just brush off her major screw-ups. These are, without a doubt, the lowest points in Detective Benson’s career:
In season 5, episode 9, Detective Benson realizes that a woman she dismissed several years ago because she was drunk was actually telling the truth about being held captive in a dungeon and raped repeatedly. What makes matters even worse is that after Benson dismissed the victim, the perpetrator went on to abduct and rape at least a dozen more women.
Benson regrets her blunder so deeply that she almost quits. Captain Cragen convinces her not to throw away all the good she has yet to do “over one mistake,” but as we’ll see, this is not the only mistake Benson makes in her career.
In season 3, episode 16, Detective Stabler convinces Detective Benson to help him find a 14-year-old rape victim who did not want to file a report. Benson uses her badge to get access to the hospital sign-in sheet to figure out the victim’s name, and then joins her partner in confronting the girl at her school.
As Captain Cragen points out when he reprimands detective Stabler, rape victims’ wishes need to be respected no matter what, otherwise they will not feel comfortable coming forward. In addition to violating the 14-year-old girl’s right to privacy, Benson and Stabler put her in more danger just with their presence. After the detectives questioned at her school, her rapist tossed her down a flight of stairs and broke her arm.
In season 8, episode 1, Detective Benson encounters a rape victim who has been brutalized but does not want to press charges or have a medical exam. Benson follows the victim to her apartment—which is already way out of line—and pleads with her to come back to the hospital and get a rape kit done. When the victim refuses, Benson actually sneaks into her bedroom and steals her underwear.
Benson was so desperate to make a case that she violated the victim’s privacy and personal space. After you’ve been brutalized, the last thing you want is a stranger coming into your apartment and stealing your clothing to run DNA tests on it. Even if that stranger is trying to help you, that kind of intrusion can cause further trauma.
In season 8, episode 16, Detectives Benson and Stabler are engaged in a car chase with a rapist who has been attacking men around the city. But Benson is distracted by a phone call from the girlfriend of her newly discovered brother. When Stabler tells Benson to go down 67th, she says “copy” even though she didn’t actually hear what he said. After Benson fails to turn down the correct street, the perpetrator gets away.
Because of Benson’s negligence, she and her partner failed to save a fourth rape victim. It is clear that the victim has lost faith in the NYPD, and he refuses to testify against his attacker.
In season 11, episode 9, Detective Benson is framed for murder. Benson and Stabler discover that the person responsible for the set-up is a man named Brady Harrison, a serial rapist who went to prison years ago thanks to Benson and Stabler’s detective work.
In a scary confrontation between Benson and Harrison, we learn that Benson told Harrison, “A pretty boy like you is gonna be real popular in prison. Maybe when you’re raped, you’ll understand what you put those women through.” When Harrison was indeed raped in prison, he thought Detective Benson had arranged it.
Granted, Benson did not actually arrange for Harrison to be raped. But she admits that she never should have said those things to him. A detective who aims to bring rapists to justice should not encourage or tolerate prison rape. Criminals deserve to do their time. But they don’t deserve to be sexually violated.
To add injury to insult, Benson makes the same prison rape threat against another perp in another episode, and then beats the guy up. It's episode 19 of season 8 when Detective Benson absolutely loses her shit in an interrogation. First, she slaps the guy clean across his face. Then she says, "Those big boys in prison are gonna love your pussy pervert ass up there." (WTF?) Finally, she knocks him to the floor and kicks him relentlessly.
Captain Cragen has to run in to stop Benson from beating the guy to a pulp. As he correctly points out, they'll never be able to convict a rapist with a confession he made while he was being brutalized.
In season 1, episode 14, the detectives desperately try to catch a rapist who attacked three women before the five year statue of limitations runs out. A major twist comes when it turns out that one of the women knows the identity of her rapist but refuses to disclose it. Captain Cragen instructs the detectives to send the victim to jail if she continues to be uncooperative.
Though the captain is the one who gave the order, Benson recognizes that she played an integral role, saying, "We just sent a rape victim to the lock-up. No, I'm not okay." When Benson and Stabler do catch the rapist, they realize that the uncooperative victim was right when she said, "He's a changed man." The rapist is now permanently confined to a wheelchair and could never attack anyone again.
In season 9, episode 16, Detectives Benson and Stabler investigate the murder of a gay man, who was dating a closeted famous quarterback. To keep up appearances, the quarterback was also dating a supermodel who was unaware of his sexuality. When the detectives question the model, Benson reveals that the quarterback is gay.
Benson didn't intend to out the football player; she misunderstood the model and thought she already knew the secret. But Benson should have been more careful with such sensitive information. Luckily for her, it wasn't Benson's mistake that led to the football player being the victim of a gay bashing. It was his own agent who leaked the secret to the media.
In season 4, episode 1, Detectives Benson and Stabler are called into a sex club bust when a sex worker reports that a man tried to rape her. From the get-go, both detectives are skeptical of the woman's claim. But that skepticism is quickly shut down when they find another sex worker raped and murdered in the bathroom.
When detective Benson is back at the station, talking with the first victim who escaped, she continues to show no sympathy. Refusing to acknowledge the social contexts in which women turn to prostitution, she says, "You're at risk because you put yourself at risk." You'd think that a crusader for victims rights would have a more nuanced understanding of the circumstances of sex workers.
In season 2, episode 6, Benson and Stabler investigate the rape and murder of a young doctoral student. At first, they suspect a schizophrenic man who refuses to take medication. Detective Benson says she thinks schizophrenics should be forcibly medicated to keep themselves and the public safe.
It turns out that the schizophrenic man was actually a witness to the crime, and he attacked the perp, not the victim. He is offered the opportunity to testify to avoid going to prison for assault, but in order to testify, he has to take the medication he doesn't want. After he is medicated, he commits suicide.
Although Detective Benson was not the one who made the deal, she made clear her position about forcibly medicating the mentally ill. She showed no sympathy for a man who feared the side effects of anti-psychotics, and he ended up dead.
Benson does not have a good track record with showing sympathy for people suffering from mental illnesses. In season 6, episode 9, she and her partner try to find a rapist targeting disabled women. One of the victims is schizophrenic.
When the victim checks herself out of the hospital and the detectives can't find her, Benson goes off on "the mental health profession." She says, "You medicate them just enough so you can cut them loose, and then nobody monitors them. They go off their meds and the next thing you know, they either become the victim of a crime or they commit one."
So it's the hospital's fault the victim was raped in the first place? Shouldn't an SVU detective put the blame squarely on the rapist's shoulders?
In Season 2, episode 11, Detective Benson is desperate to help a young girl who is being emotionally abused by her celebrity parents. Because the abuse is emotional, not physical, and the parents are absent or uncooperative, Detective Benson struggles to get the case off the ground.
Benson finally takes the extreme measure of removing the girl from her home. She's sent to a depressing foster care facility until a family court hearing. In the end, the girl sees Benson as an enemy, not an ally, and she ends up back at home with parents who have learned nothing from the ordeal.
Benson meant well, and emotional abuse is definitely a serious issue, but she wasted the department's time and resources and gained nothing from it.
In Season 9, episode 7, Benson and Stabler investigate a case of a girl who was kidnapped and raped. At the start of the investigation, their strongest piece of evidence is the rental car the girl was found in. They question the man who last rented the car and accept his alibi that he returned it to the rental car place.
However, Benson and Stabler fail to realize that the perp could have stolen the car right back after he returned it. Because of their mistake, the kidnapper is able to flee after Benson and Stabler question him. They do track him down, but Detective Stabler could have avoided a head injury if they had arrested him the first time around.
In season 9, episode 14, Detectives Benson and Stabler race against the clock to find a stolen cryotank full of embryos before they become unviable. They interview all the people whose embryos are in the tank, including the parents of a girl who has the mental age of a 3-month-old.
When Benson learns the parents are putting their daughter through a medical treatment to stunt her growth, she accuses them of abusing her. The parents try to defend their decision, saying they need to be able to carry their daughter so her body gets enough circulation, but Benson isn't having any of it. Stabler has to remind his partner that "parents have to make hard choices." Benson may have disagreed with their choice, but she was out of line accusing them of abuse.
In season 12, Olivia Benson becomes the temporary guardian of a boy named Calvin, whose mother is a drug addict. In episode 10 of the season, Benson makes mistake after mistake because of her conflict of interest. When an investigation implicates Calvin's mother in a murder case, Captain Cragen takes Benson off the case because she's too close to it. But Benson disobeys his orders and goes looking for Calvin's mother anyway.
Benson also never sends the DNA sample she took from Calvin to the lab to try and find his father, because she doesn't want to give him up. When Calvin's mother finally comes to get her son back, Benson accuses her of taking Calvin in order to get revenge on her. She never thinks that maybe the mother just wants her son back.
Featured photo courtesy of NBC