Why word selection matters during a suspect interview/interrogation

Using words that minimize the moral seriousness of behavior can help police investigators obtain the truth from a deceptive individual


We are all besieged by marketing semantics that are used to obtain a desired effect. Would you rather purchase a vehicle from a used car lot or a certified pre-driven center? Police investigators can use the same principle when interviewing or interrogating individuals by attempting to select the least offensive description of the crime without legally minimizing consequences of the behavior.

The role of semantics in investigative interviews

Merriam-Webster defines semantics as: The language used (as in advertising or political propaganda) to achieve a desired effect on an audience.”

A photo of a video monitor showing Cincinnati Police Dept. Sgt. Shannon Heine and another Cincinnati police representative interviewing Ray Tensing, right. (Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP, Pool)
A photo of a video monitor showing Cincinnati Police Dept. Sgt. Shannon Heine and another Cincinnati police representative interviewing Ray Tensing, right. (Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP, Pool)

When conducting a non-accusatory investigative interview of an individual suspected of committing a crime, it is important to use words that seem to minimize the moral seriousness of the behavior in question. For example, when questioning regarding a rape, it would be more appropriate to phrase the question, “Did you force Mary to have sexual intercourse?” rather than, “Did you rape Mary?” Along these same lines it would be more appropriate in a homicide investigation to ask the subject, “Did you cause the death of your next-door neighbor, Charlie?” rather than, “Did you murder your next-door neighbor, Charlie?”

Socially acceptable terms

A good rule to follow is to avoid words that describe the crime as it is listed in the criminal code. It is more effective to use words and phrases that mean the same but are less emotionally charged. Most criminals do not view their behavior as “bad.” In most cases they have already rationalized and justified their behavior.

Here are 10 examples of “socially acceptable replacements for legal terms:

  1. Take or took without permission vs. steal
  2. Sexually touch vs. molest
  3. Making a sexual comment vs. sexual harassment
  4. Caused the death of vs. murder
  5. Caused the fire vs. arson
  6. Caused the explosion or damage vs. terrorist act
  7. Selling drugs vs. dealing drugs
  8. Overreacting when disciplining a child vs. child abuse
  9. Going into a house without permission vs. home invasion
  10. Viewing young individuals in sexual activities vs. child pornography

You should also apply the same principle when describing the victim of a crime. For example, in a child sexual abuse case involving a family member, investigators should refer to the victim by their first name, “Mary,” versus “Your child.” We would not ask, “Did you sexually molest your child?” but rather, “Did you have sexual contact with Mary?” Both questions address the same behavior, but the latter socially distances the abhorrent behavior and associated punishment.

In addition, never show graphic photos of the victim to the subject during an interview or interrogation. Not only do you want to keep details about the crime secret (so they can be used later to verify the authenticity of a confession), but you do not want to remind the subject of the seriousness of their behavior.

Conclusion

Using words that minimize the moral seriousness of the behavior but not the legal consequences will significantly help investigators obtain the truth from deceptive individuals and increase case resolution.

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