If you’ve ever watched a scripted cop drama and thought to yourself, ‘Lady detectives don’t really look like that!’ Atlanta Police Department homicide detective Summer Benton could be the comely cop to change your mind. But don’t the perfectly made-up face, flowing auburn hair and soft southern drawl fool you. Like Cincinnati detectives Jenny Luke and Jennifer Mitsch, her costars on TLC’s new true-crime series Women of Homicide, Benton has the tenacity and track record to strike fear into the cold hearts of the murderers she’s hunting down.
As the series notes, just 15 percent of the nation’s homicide detectives are women. But Luke, Mitsch and Benton are making it work, balancing their tough and time-consuming jobs with family, friends and volunteer work.
Benton, a 12-year veteran of the APD with five years in the homicide division and 28 cases solved, followed her detective dad into the field and also serves as Hostage Negotiator for the City of Atlanta.
“I remember I was in kindergarten and my dad would go home and change into his uniform to come and pick me up, because I loved it when he would pick me up in uniform,” she recalls. “I would tell everybody, ‘I want to be just like him some day.’ I look up to him more than I do anybody in this world. He is my mentor, and I know I can turn to him for anything.”
Luke, the married mother of two sons, has 20 years on the force, 13 years in the Homicide Unit, and 70 solved cases under her belt. She spent several years as an undercover vice cop prior to joining homicide.
Mitsch, a 16-year member of the Cincinnati Police Department, has been part of the Homicide Unit for eight years, with 31 solved cases. Mitsch is married to a police officer and also the mother of two.
Benton says she was drawn to doing the series by the opportunity to show viewers the complexity of solving murders, coupled with the depth of the grief the brutal crimes cause.
“A lot of times when people hear that a murder has occurred, they only hear it for 30 seconds on the news,” she explains. “What people can take away from Women of Homicide is how it’s not just the victim who suffered a loss. Granted, the victim is deceased, but you’ve got loved ones who are going to have to live the rest of their lives not being able to speak to or touch their loved one again, and I think that by following us, you also see how it is a major journey. You don’t get closure right away. But then when you do figure out the case and you’ve solved it and you can call them, the family gets a moment of peace. A piece of good news. I’m hoping the viewers will take away what the victims’ families have to go through — and what they should not have to go through.”
Fans of 48 Hours, The First 48 and other on-the-scene crime series should love Women of Homicide’s gritty, no-holds-barred approach to the detectives’ work, coupled with humanizing glimpses into their personalities and personal lives that shed light into what makes them so good at what they do — the latter setting the series apart from its predecessors.
We interrogated Detective Benton about what it takes to be a woman of homicide, her first murder case, talking shop with her dad and how she takes a break from breaking cases.
Channel Guide Magazine: What sorts of parameters and boundaries were established for the camera crews before you began filming?
Summer Benton: When they first started, we did sit down and discuss what the parameters would be. One parameter in particular was my personal life — they couldn’t film certain aspects of my personal life. Another aspect was when we were filming at a crime scene; they were not able to cross over the crime scene tape. And then from there, if there was something that we felt would be better if they filmed it from somewhere else, instead of right up against us, we would set those parameters as we’d go along. They did a really good job of working with us. It took a little getting used to, but overall, it was a great experience.
CGM: You say in the series that you wanted to be a homicide detective from the time you joined the PD. What is it about homicide that drew you in?
SB: In homicide, you start the case and you finish the case. You get to be a part of the case all the way through. I loved being a beat officer — I loved handling 911 calls, I loved every part of it — but a lot of times you get the case at the beginning and then you have to hand it over to a detective or a higher ranking officer. And as a detective — and especially as a homicide detective — you get to start and finish the case. You get to solve this puzzle that is one of the worse crimes that anyone has to go through, and you have to be extremely intelligent and cooperative and communicative about all of these issues to be able to do that.
CM: Do you need a certain inherent intuition or observational nature to excel at this kind of work, or can you be taught to be a good homicide detective?
SB: It’s both. You definitely have to get taught the procedures when you come into this type of unit, but it wakes a specific type of person to be able to work these crimes. Not everybody can work homicides. Not everybody can work SVU. I’m much more comfortable working homicides, but I’m not sure I would be a good fit in the SVU department. It takes a specific type of persona and you just have to figure out where you can help the best.
CGM: In one of the episodes, you said that people have the misconception that homicide detectives are less sensitive to death and dead bodies. How would you describe your relationship with death, since you see it and deal with it almost every day?
SB: You have to make sure you have a coping mechanism. You have to make sure that you have a strong sense of family and friends — and I get a lot of my strength from the coworkers that I work with. It’s not that we’re used to seeing dead people and it’s not that we’re shut off to that — but we’ve learned how to cope with it on a different level, and to turn to friends and family to keep us going, and make sure that we get out jobs done. And also, what really drives us and keeps us from not being able to cope with the victims and the victims’ families, because that is whom we’re working for. We’re working to figure out who committed this heinous crime and hopefully bring that small amount of peace for the victims’ families, and maybe a little bit of closure.
CGM: As viewers discover very quickly, you have a great working relationship with your partner Detective Kevin Ott, who memorably describes you as “a Chihuahua on crack rock” …
SB: We are sort of like the odd brother and sister. We get along great. We have our moments where we need to take a break from each other, but he and I really do work well together. When you are a detective, one thing you have to realize is what your boundaries are and what you’re good at and what you could become better at. Some of the stuff that I’m not 100% great at, he’s great at. And that’s one of the reasons that we work so well together. We really, really hit off, we’re best friends, and I couldn’t ask for a better partner.
CGM: Do you and your dad talk shop — or when it’s family time, it’s family time and that’s non-negotiable?
SB: When it’s family time, it’s family time. We don’t really talk a whole lot of shop anymore, mainly because I think my mother will kill us. Every once in a while, I’ll be on the phone with both of them and something will come up and I’ll tell my dad that I’ve got this particular signal going on, because he still understands all the signals and codes that we have over our dispatch. But of course my mom doesn’t know anything. So if we’re going to talk shop, it’s going to be something more along the lines of, ‘Hey, guess what I saw today.’ I don’t really discuss my cases with him.
But when I first became a police officer, I remember I was in field training and it didn’t matter what call it was — if it was the first time I saw somebody shot or the first burglary that I saw or whatever — boom! I was calling him and saying, “You’re not going to believe what happened today!” He eventually said, “Summer, I need you to stop calling me. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning.” And I was like, “Yes, sir.” [Laughs] I was just so excited to share that experience with him. But I think we’ve plateaued out on most events now.
CGM: Do you remember solving your first case?
SB: I remember it very, very well! It came up a time point between day watch and evening watch — changing shifts for the homicide unit. And I remember every single detective from day watch and every single detective from evening watch showing up, knowing it was going to be my first, and doing everything that they could to help me and to make sure that everything was done correctly and that we got the people that were involved. And we did. They were both found guilty in a court of law and they’re both serving time in prison.
When any of our coworkers say they need help, we all come together, because the unit as a whole works very, very well together. And I was extremely thankful for my coworkers supporting me, helping me and teaching me.
CGM: And so you earned your place in the “Hat Squad.” Tell me more about the significance of the fedoras.
SB: The Hat Squad has been going on for years — well before I was born — and it was brought back in the ’70s by a lieutenant from back then. And now, as it was back then, you’re not allowed to wear a hat until you’ve solved your first case. Once you’ve solved your first homicide, the unit as a whole actually comes together and purchases you your first fedora. They present it to you and from that point on you’re allowed to wear a fedora on scenes. That’s not a department policy — it’s a just a policy among the homicide detectives. [Laughs]
CGM: What determines whether you don your fedora or don’t?
SB: It all depends on what my hair looks like! [Laughs] If I have my hair down, I will most likely wear a hat. If my hair is up in a ponytail, it depends on how high the ponytail is, because sometimes the hat may not fit. But most of the time, I try to wear the hat, especially if I’m outside. It just depends. And it also depends on if I have a hat to match the particular outfit that I am wearing.
CGM: How do you “detox” when you’re not on the job?
SB: I can tell you that every Sunday is family day. I go out to my parents’ house on Sundays and I spend time with my mom, my dad, my brother, my sister-in-law and my niece and my nephew who are my pride and joy. That time is for them and them only. I’m also an avid runner. And you know, you play your funky music — whatever gets you pumped up — and mine just happens to be ’80s rock. So I listen to that while I am running and that helps me detox a bit. And friends and coworkers. It just depends. Some cases hit you a little harder than others and you may need that family support a little bit more.
CGM: Are there still some cases that keep you up at night, no matter how hard you try to step away?
SB: There’s definitely going to be those cases that linger in your head no matter what —when you do lay down at night, you’re thinking, ‘OK, what can I do next? What will be my next step in this investigation? What do I need to do tomorrow when I go in?’ You have to train yourself that when you are in bed and you’re trying to go to sleep, you need to stop thinking about certain things. But just because you say that, that doesn’t mean you’ll do it!
Women of Homicide airs Wednesday nights at 9/8CT on TLC.