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Retired Homicide Detective Recalls Her Own 'Prime Suspect' Drama

By Murray Weiss | November 21, 2011 7:28am
Former NYPD Det. Irma Rivera, left, said her first years on the NYPD were similar to those depicted on NBC's "Prime Suspect," which stars Maria Bello, right.
Former NYPD Det. Irma Rivera, left, said her first years on the NYPD were similar to those depicted on NBC's "Prime Suspect," which stars Maria Bello, right.
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Composite by Irma Rivera and Getty Images

NBC's "Prime Suspect" depicts a tough-as-nails female homicide detective toiling in an NYPD squad full of sexist cops, who fail to contain their disdain or boorish lust for actress Maria Bello’s Det. Jane Timoney.

Word that the show's being all but canceled was a disappointment to former female detectives and supervisors,  who said the show effectively captured the bad old days when they joined New York's Finest back in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I am very disappointed and surprised. I thought it was a really good show and I thought it was getting better," said former Manhattan homicide Detective Irma Rivera. "It was a very realistic cop show, and becoming more so as it went along."

Rivera spent 10 years in Manhattan South's homicide squad. She was involved in high-profile arrests including Joel Steinberg and the killer of filmmaker Adrienne Shelly.

"Prime Suspect" reminds her of her early years on the force, back in the late '80s and early '90s, when "old time" bosses hated women on the job, disrespected her work, trash talked her to her face — and worse.

Rivera started her NYPD career in 1982 in the Upper West Side's 20th Precinct. Over the years, she moved to precincts in East Harlem, the Upper East Side and Central Park before joining the Special Victims Unit. After a decade, she was assigned to the Manhattan South homicide squad, where she worked until she retired four years ago.

In the early years, there were lewd jokes and suggestive comments. Supervisors did not trust her interrogations, although none of them could speak Spanish.

"Some treated me like crap," said Rivera.

One detective screamed at her to not answer the phone because his girlfriend did not like the fact that there was a female detective in the room. There were hurtful wisecracks about her weight when she became pregnant with her first child.

And then there was the night after two tours of duty, when she was watching television in a squad room and another detective came upstairs, sat near her and said, "Hey Irma, look at this" — and exposed himself.

How did she deal with it?

With razor-sharp wit, brash retorts and stinging remarks that sent the chauvinists back on their heels. When a detective started lying to people about sleeping with her, she started describing his lack of endowment.

Not surprisingly, these are among the coping skills employed by Bello’s Detective Timoney, who has had to defend herself repeatedly from accusations she slept her way to the top because of a past relationship with a senior police officer at headquarters. 

"I love, love, love her and the show," said Rivera. "She's smart and brash and the other detectives know she is smart and are jealous.”

"Prime Suspect" is an updated version of the hit 1990s British series that starred Helen Mirren as a homicide boss who faced subtle forms of discrimination, a lack of respect and a boozy-battle balancing the rigors of her job and personal life.

Critics gave thumbs-up to Bello and the show’s story lines, which are largely based on the career of consultant Michael Sheehan, a retired NYPD homicide detective. But they did not buy the anachronistic battle of the sexes concept and stereotypes of Bello sleeping with her boss to get ahead.
"The problems I had were in the '80s, and everything started changing in the 1990s," Rivera said. "The cops who came after me, they came into a world already with women detectives. Back when I started there basically were not any."

There are currently 610 female detectives in the NYPD, sources told "On the Inside." In homicide, there's roughly one female detective per squad, and there are eight squads citywide, sources said.

A male supervisor who worked homicide for years said he bristled at the portrayal when he watched the first episode.

"Ridiculous. Silly," he said. "Not relevant in a modern police department."

Deputy Chief Kathy Ryan, who just retired as one of the highest ranking women in the NYPD, said "there were things you would see in the early '80s that you would never see today. Society has changed so much for women, and that includes the Police Department.”

Apparently the producers and writers of the show are getting that message.

Sources tell "On the Inside" that after the initial episodes they have toned down the chauvinism and rely on character relationships reflective of today’s police department.

But the change has apparently come too late for rating-obsessed NBC executives to give the show another chance. It is expected to be scrapped.