Heartbreaking Tales From 3 Real-Life Olivia Bensons

Life in the NYPD is something that's highly regarded in pop culture (thank you, Dick Wolf, for 25 wonderful years of Law and Order). It's also something that's heavily scrutinized in the media, particularly recently. What it isn't, though, is an easy feat in terms of mental and physical stability — or longevity. This is especially true for the women detectives. That's where Jennifer, Andrea, and Florence come in. They're three women with different backgrounds who eventually found common ground in their desire to help people, solve crimes, and define justice for themselves. It was this innate sensibility that would lead them to the police department's Special Victim's Unit, where they worked as detectives on some of the city's darkest crimes for nearly two decades. Now retired, they can talk openly (though not without heavy emotion and reflection) about their experiences working in New York in the '80s and '90s, when the city was struggling with record rates of drug addiction, rape, and murder. Their stories are not just brutally compelling (and at times, extremely frightening); they come with a hefty dose of empathy and strength that we're convinced only women in such positions can possess.

Editor's Note: Some stories in this article may be disturbing to readers, as they involve child abuse, sexual abuse, and graphic violence. Last names have been omitted according to the wishes of the sources and the confidential nature of the information published.
Photo: Courtesy of Meredith Hattam.

Jennifer, Queens

"I grew up in Oceanside, Long Island, and I wanted to be a cop since I was a little kid. I took the police test when I was 19, and I just waited. At first, they didn’t want to hire me. Apparently, my mom called them, and gave them a good talking to — and they changed their mind. Nobody says no to my mother. "I graduated [the academy] in July of 1986 and went to the 75th precinct. At the time, I was the only woman on the midnight staff, and it was the height of the crack epidemic. I was shot at so many times, I lost count. I was there for five years, and in five years, it got pretty bad. We had a hostage situation once, where they were firing down the street — at 7 a.m. on my birthday. This guy was holding hostages and had shot his girlfriend in the head in Coney Island. We’re waiting for backup and all that — it took hours. Finally, the Emergency Services guys came and shot him — didn’t kill him, just shot him. We met a woman from down the block, and we told her it was my birthday. When it was all done, she invited us into her house for coffee and food. That was the last time I ever worked my birthday. Never again. Working on your birthday…it’s a jinx.

We had a hostage situation once where they were firing down the street at 7 a.m. on my birthday.

"Over the years, my partner and I got into street crime, which is a plain-clothes unit that works anywhere with a large amount of robberies. One time, I saw a guy in a delivery car. He was acting funny, so we pulled him over on a really dark street — my partner was searching him, and he pulled out a gun. I didn’t realize it until later, but he had a piece of crack on him that was about a foot long. I didn’t even know what it was, since I’d only seen [crack] when it’d been broken up. And then he tried to bribe me. I said no — the guy was looking at 20 years in prison. I guess that was good, because I was offered to move over to the warrant squad. I told my boss I’d applied to move over there many years ago, but they said no because they only took detectives. He told me not to worry, and that he'd take care of it. And he did. "In the warrant squad, I learned a lot about warrants, how to check people — things that greatly benefitted me later on, as a detective. After I got promoted [to detective] in 1997, I got transferred to Special Victims. They needed people, since no one wants to volunteer for that stuff... I loved it. "Three times, I’ve dealt with serial rapists. One kind of got dumped on me, but I got a confession from him. I don’t know how I did it — but boy, was he stupid. We tracked him down through a parole officer. Another one, I knew he was staying with his mother in Queens. I was plastering his block with 'Wanted' posters. He finally called me, and asked, 'Why are you telling lies about me?' And I told him, 'Because you’re a rapist.' He finally got caught for doing something stupid, his name popped up, and they brought him in. He was convicted. "I don’t know what was worse, though — the cases I saw in the Special Victims Unit, or 9/11, going through all those pieces of dead bodies at Ground Zero. It was an all-hands-on deck moment. At the time, our offices were in Dumbo, right across [the water] from the World Trade Center. I’d gone out to the park right there and saw a plane crash into one of the towers. There was an explosion, and the ground shook. You could literally see windows and glass shattering. We all thought the world was coming to an end. I ran to get my uniform, called my friend to look after my dog, called my parents to tell them I loved them, and went to Ground Zero. There was this total silence right after it happened. You’d see people walking across the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges covered in gray. You couldn’t hear anything — no one was talking. Can you imagine that, in our city? Utter silence. They made us go to different hospitals to get victim statements, but there really wasn’t anybody left. They wanted us to pick up every piece of skin and bone for evidence. But the part that sticks with me is just how much in shock we were. I couldn’t even eat. I’d stay up for 12-hour shifts, and when I got home, the smell would just stay with me. It’s a smell you never forget. Our goal was to find the black boxes. To my knowledge, they were never found. At first, I thought it was a welcome break from being with abused kids. But it wasn’t. But you just have to do your job.

You couldn’t hear anything — no one was talking. Can you imagine that, in our city?

"There was one case, though, that made me retire, and it wasn’t even supposed to be my case. My boss told me to go to Coney Island, that there was a 16-year-old I had to talk to. When I got there, they said they weren't sure what happened, but there’s this girl whose mother and brother were just murdered, and they had the suspect. The long and short of it is that the mother had a friend, and she told him he could stay on the couch for a week as they prepared to go to Florida on vacation. The daughter woke up one morning to find the guy standing there, naked, with a machete in his hand. She ran into her mother’s room to find her mother dead, stabbed in bed. He tried to hold the girl down and rape her, but she kicked him off and ran into the bathroom, only the find her brother there without his head. There was blood everywhere. He held her hostage the entire day — he made her clean up all the blood and put her brother’s head in a bag. And the entire time, this guy is sitting there naked, with his machete, saying, 'You’re going to love me. We’re going to go to Florida together.' He finally fell asleep, and she was able to call the cops. They had no idea what they were walking into. "It took her three hours to get the story out — she was constantly looking up at the sky, telling her family how much she loved them and missed. She was in total shock. It was the first time I got emotional. I ended up giving her my personal number, and telling her I had a house in Florida. But I never heard from her. I don’t know where she got moved to. She was a sweet kid. "After that, I truly thought to myself, 'Now I’m done.' I was drinking so much after that; I was drinking to just go to sleep… I couldn’t get those things out of my head. When you see two drug dealers shooting at each other in the street, that’s one thing. But when a young girl loses her entire family, just like that, and suddenly, she’s nothing, she’s nobody — it’s so senseless. It finally made me realize that I had to go. I had worked for 22 years — I wanted to do more, but not at the expense of my health, or my sanity. When I spoke with an older detective, when I just started out, he told me, 'You’ll know when it’s time to leave.' And I knew it was time."
Photo: Courtesy of Meredith Hattam.

Andrea, Brooklyn

"I became a cop because my dad made me take the police tests; he bet me $10 I wouldn’t pass... But I did, and I never looked back... I started in the projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in June of 1986." "It wasn’t too shocking — I kind of knew about the housing projects at the time...but I had a Spanish last name, red hair, and green eyes, so I stood out a lot. Even though I grew up in the city, I never knew anyone who did heroin. So it was kind of a shock to see it in the projects. And then to see them come down off it…it’s a horrible thing. But I met great people and had a great career. I was treated like one of the guys — sometimes there was cursing or a sexual innuendo. But that didn’t bother me. Growing up in Brooklyn, you get a thick skin. Eventually, I got called into the housing narcotics unit, which is where I got my shield. We’d have confidential informants do the drug buying, and that’s how we’d get the bad guys. "By the time was pregnant with my second kid, I went into the Manhattan narcotics unit, which was a whole other ball game. You’d walk into these fancy apartments and it’d be like a drugs store — they had everything: cocaine, pills, you name it. The packaging was all on shelves. It was very advanced. "Then, a position opened up in the Special Victims Unit as a detective. A friend of mine said, 'I’m going to go onto the child side, come do it.' So I did, and I did 12 years there. I spent 24 years on the force altogether. "Some of the cases we saw were horrific. You try not to bring it home. My worst case happened the night before Thanksgiving. A six-year-old child’s father stabbed his mother to death, and the child witnessed it — but he thought that what he saw was daddy helping mommy throw up. What the man was actually doing was stabbing her repeatedly in the stomach, and she was throwing up her lungs. We had a way of interviewing the child, and he told us what he saw. The D.A. was fine with it, because what he described was his father stabbing his mother. I didn’t get home until 9 p.m. the next day. My partner and I were devastated. It was Thanksgiving, and this kid’s father was going to jail, and his mother was dead. And the next day was his birthday, which he’d planned to have at Burger King. So my partner and I went to Toys-R-Us and brought a bunch of toys to him. He went to live with his mother’s family upstate. I don’t know if, to this day, he’ll know that what he saw was his mother being murdered. His name was Brian; he lived in Sunset Park. He was just adorable. I still think of him to this day. After, I took off every Thanksgiving. I was like, never again.

It was Thanksgiving, and this kid’s father was going to jail, and his mother was dead. And the next day was his birthday.

"There was another kid whose mother’s boyfriend had put his hand over the stove because he stole from the store. He had third-degree burns... When we went to interview him in the hospital, we could still smell it. It was awful. How weird is it that I can just speak so freely about this stuff? I can talk to my husband about my detective work because he’s also on the job, but it’s hard to talk about working on abuse cases with people not on the force. When I’m sitting out at a bar with my friends, and it’s just like, 'This guy, he sexually abused her, he did this, he did that, it’s been going on for six months…' I mean, that’s not a bar conversation. For the most part, it didn’t affect my home life. Every night, I would go home and hug my children, though. "9/11 was one of the most difficult days. I was working in an office two blocks away. I called my mother and said, 'I think a plane just hit.' We immediately started helping people walk towards the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, just to get out of the city. I didn’t even know my husband was alive until 1:30 in the morning — we finally were able to met at our house at 2:30 a.m. I kissed my kids goodnight, and then we basically didn’t see them for the next two weeks. We were working 13-, 14-hour days after that, helping out. I’ve never been to so many funerals in my life. We had a lot of firemen friends who passed away, [and] civilian friends. My daughters lost their soccer coach, who was their best friend’s father. Their teacher lost her husband. My older daughter had so much trouble sleeping after that...she slept with me for a year. She couldn’t fathom how they died, and developed a huge fear of fire. I couldn’t get my daughters out of my bed. But I was okay with that, because I just wanted to hold them with me. I still cry over it.

I’ve never been to so many funerals in my life.

"Now, I work for the Administration for Children’s Services, which is mainly caseworkers. I have so much respect for what they do. It’s such a wonderful job — there’s just so much work there. They’ve developed this special unit of all retired detectives. They give us access to all of the police department files so we can help with research, and sometimes we’ll go out and assist them. They do God’s work. They really do."
Photo: Courtesy of Meredith Hattam.

Florence, Queens

"I moved to New York (Elmhurst, Queens) from Bangladesh when I was six years old — with my mom, my dad, and my two younger sisters. I’m pretty much a lifelong New Yorker — hence, no accent [laughs]. When I first came here, the neighborhood was very Italian, Irish, and Spanish. Then, we moved to Corona and were the only East Indian family there. It was a little tough...assimilating; the food wasn’t the same, and [I had] no friends of the same nationality. I remember being bullied and called names, and not having too many friends or interactions with people other than my immediate family. New York is way more of a melting pot now. "When I came to this country, I started watching American TV. I used to watch Super Friends, The Lone Ranger, and Wonder Woman, and it really made me realize that I wanted to do something where I could give back, and help and protect innocent people. Especially in my family, being the eldest, I was always the one helping everyone out; when other family members would come to this country, and need to do Visa applications, I would do them. My parents relied on me a lot when it came to translations, especially with school stuff, like parent-teacher conferences, report cards... "I knew, when I was about 13, that I really wanted to work in law enforcement or political science. Having teachers who told me, 'You can be anything you want to be as a woman' — we never had that in my culture. In my culture, you’re not taught to be strong; you’re taught to be meek, to stay on a path until you reach a certain age, and then you go into an arranged marriage. And my parents didn’t know any different, because that was their upbringing. So that was my clash. "A friend of mine told me she’d seen a poster to become a police cadet... The next day, I called them... A sergeant answered, told me the deadline had passed, but took my information in case someone dropped out. A few days later, I got that call. I went for the interview, filled out a ton of paperwork, and had a physical and background check conducted. Two weeks later, they called me and said, 'Congratulations, you’re now a police cadet.' "I was a cadet from 1987 to 1989, and then became an officer in 1989. It was a little difficult. I was the only Bengali female in the police academy. To me, every place of business has its own sense of sexism and discrimination. There’s not one industry that’s immune — corporate or in the public sector. I always chalk it up to, 'If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger,' but it’s definitely hard. I think a lot of women at the time had the same feeling — of just not knowing what to expect.

I was the only Bengali female in the police academy.

"For example, in the police academy, I had really long hair — it’s a cultural thing. But I used to hear, 'Florence, you have a hair sticking out,' even when I would try my best to fix it. I told one of my friends that I couldn't do it anymore, so I got my hair cut. It was a buzz cut. I showed up to work, and the supervisor passed by, tapped me on the shoulder, and said 'Good job.' If you really want the job, other than sacrificing your soul or harming another human being, you’ll do what you need to get it. You need to show them that you’re serious, and that you’re there to get done what you need to get done. "When I came out of the police academy, I first worked in Queens. Then, I was transferred to East New York. Foot patrol, it was called. When you showed up to work, they’d tell you which streets you were patrolling, and that was your whole strip. You either got there by means of walking, or you’d befriend someone in a sector car, who was more senior and helped us rookies out. Back then, there were no cell phones or pagers — just pay phones, so you’d have to find one to call into the station and check in. You’d tell the precinct, 'Yeah, this is post one, I’m okay.' These were midnight tours. It was a skeleton crew. "After that, I went into Brooklyn North narcotics. We were in modules. It was the late '80s, a time of crack, bad stuff. A lot of buildings were half-abandoned and falling apart. For me, it was a culture shock. Coming from Corona to this, it was like, where am I? It was fun, though. When you’re in narcotics, you have to know what you’re getting into when you run into these projects. The people who live in the neighborhood, selling the drugs…they know better than [the police] do. We never knew what was waiting around the corner. "When I was promoted to detective, the majority of my career was in the child victims squad in Brooklyn. We encompassed all of Brooklyn — everything from East New York to Coney Island, and all the precincts in between. I didn’t want to go in the first place, but this new unit opened up and a couple of my colleagues had moved there. The police force is paramilitary, and when they tell you to transfer, you have to go. So I did. At orientation, they tell you you’re going to work with kids 12 and under who have been physically or sexually abused. And I was like, 'I really don’t want to be here.' "It was very emotional. I had a really hard time in the beginning. One of my coworkers was like, 'Give it six months. If you can’t do six months, I’ll write the paperwork for you to go.' So I said, 'I’ll give it six months, just for you.' Those six months turned into 13 years. "When you're dealing with a child who was physically or sexually abused, the goal is to get them to speak with as [few] people as possible. Our unit aimed to make it less traumatizing. We had doctors in the building, we had social workers, and we had the Administration of Child Services (ACS). These children were used to feeling so unsafe — we just wanted them to feel as safe as possible. "Once, I got a 10-10 (fight-in-progress) call from a woman saying her boyfriend was drunk and abusive and holding the door shut. So I tried to arrest him, and then she attacked me because she didn’t want him locked up. It was a very typical situation for domestic violence. You’ll get a call about a child being in danger. And then all hell breaks loose because they don’t actually want you to take their child. They’ll call you to come help, and then change their mind. Sometimes it goes smoothly, sometimes it doesn’t. "I look at it this way, though — taking that one child out of a bad situation is good enough for me. You want [the children] to forget the situation they were in — because forgetting is part of healing. I wanted them to remember me as helping them with their situation, but at the same time, it makes them go emotionally backwards. Children can recoup fast, but their psyche doesn’t work the same as an adult. They’re not like, 'This happened, so I have to go to therapy and move on.' With kids, they can actually forget about it, if they go through proper therapy. It doesn’t have to traumatize them for life. It can almost feel like a dream. "You would think that you can look at a kid and say 'I know when they're lying.' But that’s not always the case. I once encountered a six-year-old child who was so articulate at describing the abuse. Her mother was adamant that her best friend, who was accused of the abuse, hadn’t done it. I interviewed the best friend, and I just knew he didn’t do it. So I went back to interview the victim. I don’t usually do that with kids, because it can be traumatizing. And she was still insistent; she started crying. So I locked him up, but there was something irking me. A week later, the child goes to the D.A.’s office, and the D.A. tells me, 'I don’t believe her.' He asked me to go back and talk to her again. This time, I was a little harsher. She finally tells me the truth, which was that she lied. She thought her mother’s best friend stole her earrings, and she was angry with him. I told my partner, 'I can’t believe I let a six-year-old get to me.' It’s really sad, but sometimes kids manipulate the situation to get what they want to get — like pitting mom against dad to get a puppy. They don’t recognize the lifelong consequences their accusations can bring. On the flip side, I dealt with a 10-year-old girl with a learning disability who was abused. The D.A. was adamant that she was lying; I was able to prove that she was telling the truth.

The biggest thing was realizing that it’s all about the victim; whatever makes the victim comfortable is what matters.

"Abuse is one of the most underrated crimes. It’s mainly a crime against women and children, and some people, they view their kids as their property; it's like, 'I can do whatever I want. It’s my kid.' Sometimes, it’s so difficult to lock someone up, because the child it’s affecting doesn’t even realize what was happening to them was wrong. They just know that someone they love is going to jail. That’s a very hard thing to see — they don’t realize they were abused until much later on. "Now that I look back at it, I can honestly say I’m not the same person I was before working as a detective on the child abuse unit. The people I’ve dealt with, the stories I’ve heard... For me, the biggest thing was realizing that it’s all about the victim; whatever makes the victim comfortable is what matters. Sometimes, if the victim is an adult, they can tell you they don’t want to pursue the case, even if you know something happened. And you have to comply. It’s the hardest thing. You know there’s still this evil person out there, and you try to convince the victim — you can tell them about the statute of limitations. But the older victims, they just want to move on. They don’t have the energy to go to court and feel victimized again. I look at it like this — as long as that person, at the end of the day, is okay, then I’m okay. Because if that person can survive what they went through, I can survive listening to it. I’m mentally going through it, but they physically had to go through it. I can mentally block it. But they couldn’t. It’s always there in their memory. "I didn’t become a police officer to write summons — I became a police officer to help people. It became my niche, to help these young children have a voice. I like to tell them, 'No matter what your situation is, you can be whoever you want to be.' In a way, it’s come full circle for me, because that’s what I heard when I was young, too. And I know it’s true."